Lessons from Sushi Bars, Magicians and SwansWhere Has My Simple, Uncomplicated Life Gone?

One of my favourite types of eating experiences is the typical sushi bar. I’m certainly not a “Yuppie”, and nor one of South Africa’s political elite, who are infamous for spending vast amounts of money on sushi. In addition, I’m not really that partial to raw fish.

But the restaurant has a really great concept when it comes to the service experience.

At the centre is a long counter, around which all of the customers sit. On the outside of the counter, within easy reach of the customers, is a revolving conveyor belt on which there are around sixty small plates of various bite-sized delectable snacks, all of which are beautifully decorated. Customers help themselves to whatever they desire, and if your favourites are not on the belt, you can order them, for in the centre of this “stage” is a hollow in which the sushi chef puts on a performance of preparing new plates of snacks to replenish those that are eaten by clients.

There are a few reasons why this concept appeals to me. First, there is wide choice, not only of the different appetising dishes, but also of how much or how little you want to eat. Second, freshness is guaranteed – and it is visible right in front of you. Third, there’s the entertainment value as the food is skillfully and precisely prepared before you. Fourth, there’s the speed of it all: you can eat comfortably and leave in 15 minutes if you wish. Finally, each plate is colour coded so that you know exactly what you are paying for.

But what appeals to me most is the simplicity of it all. You walk in, eat immediately, stay as long, (or as short,) as you like, pay, and go. It is not surprising that the Sushi Bar is a Japanese invention: the beauty of simplicity is one of the strongest values in this amazing country.

As I sit at the restaurant, it always strikes me how complicated many businesses have made my life. When I apply for financing of a new car at the bank, even though I have bought seventeen different cars over the past few decades, and always financed them with the same bank, (the bank, I might add, where I have had numerous different accounts for almost fifty years,) I am still asked to fill in all of my personal details, like name, address, various telephone numbers, occupation, and the inevitable, “Who do you bank with?” every time. I also usually have to bring a whole bunch of paperwork including identity documents, a self-signed letter from my company proving that I am employed, and a municipal statement no older than three months.

When I fly, I have to book well in advance, arrive two to three hours beforehand, park, walk, wait in a queue, check in my baggage, pass through security, wait again in a a massive hall with insufficient seating, finally board the ’plane, and only then do we fly. On the other side, I have to get out the plane, walk seemingly miles to the terminal, (or wait to be bussed to a terminal,) wait for a long time for my bags, walk far to the car hire offices, wait in queues again, and eventually drive away. A two-hour trip to Cape Town usually takes six to seven hours from house to hotel. And then there’s another waiting process to check into the hotel.

If I want to change payment of my monthly debit orders from one account to another, a whole lot of paperwork ensues, and usually something goes wrong. To unblock my cell-phone for overseas calls, emails fly backwards and forwards for a few days – and when I am at my final destination I realise that it hasn’t been done the way I wanted it to.

Some conference venues where I speak almost go out of their way to make sure that preparation of the venue and a simple cup of coffee for delegates are left to the last minute. The staff miraculously disappear when I need help to carry heavy stuff from my car. Their plugs and equipment are old and not always working, leading to urgent last-minute calls for the manager. I ma told exactly when I need to break for tea and lunch so that their lives are not disrupted.

And so it continues.

Roberto Goizueta, late CEO of Coca Cola said of the company: “This is really a very simple business. When we complicate it, we really mess things up.” I am inclined to agree.

Of course, it is not always like this. Some businesses have made life simple, and probably at great difficulty and perhaps some risk to themselves. When you buy a customised computer from Dell, it comes ready to “plug and play”.

At De Oude Caab Guesthouse in Bellville, where I always feel especially warmly welcomed, simplicity rules. For my first visit, a clear map with clear directions was sent to my offices unasked for. As I arrive, usually after 9:00 p.m. I am guided to my parking bay by a friendly employee. Check-in happens in my room – after I’ve settled in. Even if I get there late in the night, there is food waiting, usually fruit, biltong, sweets and rusks. Their philosophy seems to be: “You’re travelling, you’re tired, what can we do to make things as easy as possible for you?”

Mr. Delivery makes life easy by bringing food, videos and other items to my house. Now Uber is starting to get in on the same action. The garden service comes in, do their work properly, and leave. The nursery assistant at Anderson’s Nursery gives me a crash course on where and how I should plant my new purchases, and how I should look after them.

So what can you do in your company?

  • It obviously begins with designing and redesigning your processes and systems – from a customer’s perspective. Challenge everything, and do it regularly.
  • If you start off with the question: “How can we do this easier and faster than ever before?” you will probably find that you have made the first big step.
  • If you are unsure about what to do, ask your customers to be involved in identifying the “dumb contacts.”
  • When you are a customer, look out for the times when your life is made complicated and difficult, and make sure that your business hasn’t fallen into the same traps.
  • There will also be times when you have expertise that customers don’t. You know how your products work, how your company is structured, and how to solve their problems. So use your knowledge and competence to help them, to show them the short cuts, to train them, to share information that they don’t usually have access to, and to make their lives easier.
  • Learn from other businesses. Can you implement an ATM-type approach for your customers? Is there anything you can learn from Amazon.com or McDonalds?
  • Have one point of contact for your customers, and let that person or team do whatever needs to happen internally to take care of their problems. For example, the Virgin Airlines “limousine” drops off Upper Class passengers at the lounge, and then takes care of all the other issues except security, passport control and shopping. This example also shows how you can offer customers a complete “A to Z” package which includes all of the stuff that happens before and after they use your products and services. Big construction companies get approval for a new toll road from the authorities, then design it, build it, administer the tolls, and maintain the road for the next twenty years. Virgin Brides, (another Richard Branson company,) will make all arrangements for your wedding, so that all you have to do is arrive and enjoy it.
  • And, of course, you need to empower your staff to occasionally break the rules, or go beyond the same old methods and responses to customer problems.

The companies that simplify things for their customers will inevitably be able to attract more business, and, as an added bonus, simplicity also usually means more profits for your business as you do more with less.

You have to be like a magician. What the audience sees is entertaining, exciting, and sometimes even breathtaking. We watch and can’t believe how this could actually be. We know there is some trick, but will never find out how it’s done. And from our point of view, it seems so simple and uncomplicated.

But the magician knows that it doesn’t happen on its own. First he must plan everything exactly to the smallest detail. He knows he must rehearse and practice over and over and over again. He needs to organise himself, his assistants, and all the equipment precisely, and make everything appear seamless. And then he has to execute it perfectly all in front of a huge audience.

If you’ve ever watched a swan on a lake, it appears to glide beautifully, smoothly and effortlessly by. But underneath the water, that swan is paddling madly to propel himself forward. You need to do the same as that magician and swan in your business.

It’s hard work, but you will reap the rewards tenfold.


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