The Lesson Learned from the Scallop and the Grain of Sand

Scallop and SandOriginally published on January 30, 2014 in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

I recently sat at a sushi bar eating lunch when I noticed a man who was apparently the owner and chief chef carefully inspecting the scallops that were to be sliced up and served that evening. When I say carefully inspecting, I mean that he had these things about an inch from his eye, examining them millimeter-by-millimeter. As he eyed each scallop, he would occasionally stop, take a pair of tweezers, and carefully remove something from the scallop before continuing his inspection. After a scallop met his exacting standards, he put each one on a tray, covered them in plastic wrap and placed them in the chilled window display, ready to go I suppose for that evening’s dinner.

I am a curious person, so as I witnessed this careful quality inspection, I asked the chef what he was looking for in this exacting surveillance. “Sand,” was his one word answer. He was making sure that not a single grain of sand would be found by a dinner patron by way of an unpleasant crunch between his or her teeth.

This restaurant has been in business for 14 years and from all indicators, it continues to be popular and profitable. Four to five years ago, it moved to a significantly bigger space, and that larger space is typically busy every evening. It is the consistently high quality of the food that keeps customers coming back and recommending the restaurant to their friends.

What can we learn from the scallop and the grain of sand for our own businesses?

Remember that quality is a value as much as a strategy. You should have seen this chef carefully inspect each of these scallops — he gave those scallops a physical that would have made the Mayo Clinic proud. Do you think this chef understands that sand in his scallops will hurt his customers’ loyalty and negatively impact his restaurants reputation? Yes. But as I watched this man in action, I saw a commitment that went beyond business strategy — he took pride in doing quality work.

Ironically, the better things are going in our businesses, the easier it becomes to let quality slip. If our revenues are growing and our clients are enthusiastic, now is the perfect time to step back and ask what we can do to take the consistent quality of our services to the next level. It is the consistent experience of quality that turns customers into enthusiastic fans and proponents of our businesses.

Model your commitment to quality. If we believe that quality is a value, we as leaders need to embody and live out our enthusiasm for doing quality work. When this chef/owner makes his commitment to quality clear, there is no room for others in the business to act as if quality is not important.

Systematize your commitment to quality. I saw this head chef completing his detailed scallop inspection at 1 p.m. in the afternoon with a mostly empty dining room. Later that evening, I can assure you that the team of chefs making dinner was not inspecting each scallop they served. They were trusting that the earlier quality check allowed them to quickly create and serve their raw fish dishes. This systematic approach to ensuring quality food took more time earlier in the day but allowed this restaurant to quickly serve food and turn tables later that evening. A commitment to quality is all about investing more time up front in order to move with effective alacrity later.

Mentor others in systems and approaches for ensuring quality. I did not see anyone assisting this chef in his quality inspection, and that may be an area where he can take his commitment to quality to the next level. He should be mentoring junior chefs in his methods for ensuring quality. We in turn should be mentoring less seasoned leaders in our methods for consistently delighting customers with great products and services.

Hire people with a passion for quality. If quality is important in our businesses, and we are committed to building quality into our systems, then we have to hire people with this commitment to quality in mind. To me, this comes down to people who clearly have taken pride in doing high quality work in their past roles. If people share our commitment to doing great work, it will be relatively easy to teach them our systems for achieving quality. But no amount of training and mentoring will help people who do not take pride in the work they produce.

Nothing keeps customers coming back like quality. People like this sushi chef are an inspiration to me. In the midst of a society and economy where most products are of lower quality than when I was a kid, he is committed to creating food of the highest quality. Two restaurants may serve sushi that looks the same. But you will only return again and again to the restaurant that you trust to serve the freshest fish as well as scallops that are always sand free. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity provided by competitors who deliver a broad swath of mediocre goods and services. Let us recommit ourselves to quality.

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