I love Japanese food, and was at a famous Japanese restaurant a few weeks back. The Chef of this restaurant is globally renowned. He has restaurants in and outside Japan. This particular one that I went to, is in a 5 star hotel. It’s cozy and has elegant ambience. This time when I went there for dinner, all the tables were taken. So I sat at the Sushi counter. As I was looking around, at the end of the long counter I noticed some lovely flowers, which looked like cherry blossoms. They are called Sakura flowers in Japan. However, with a closer look I realized, the flowers were made of plastic. That really irked me. Sure the restaurant can afford some fresh flowers every day. I know that all the fish, vegetables and special ingredients are flown in from Japan every day. Why not fresh flowers?
I decided to ask the manager why the restaurant had plastic flowers, when they could have nice fresh flowers, even a simple ikebana arrangement. His reply surprised me. He said these flowers were chosen by the Chef himself, and he wouldn’t want anything else in the restaurant. Every ingredient, every recipe, every team member were chosen by the Chef. So were these flowers.
While I agreed with all the other things, I expressed my disbelief at the inclusion of plastic flowers in the list. To this the manager said, that the flowers were a representation of many things the Chef believed in. The Chef was a staunch upholder of the Japanese ethos of perfection and so was his entire team there. Every item on the menu had to be perfect. There were times when a whole batch of meat or fish was thrown away just because the first piece wasn’t right. The food served in the restaurant had to be always eaten there, it was never sent to a room or anywhere outside, even if the hotel’s owner requested for it. All the chefs trained by the master Chef always respected his dictums and followed them to the T, even though he visited the restaurant only couple of times a year.
There was never a compromise. The manager said, that he had learnt so much by working with this team and how it was so different from the “chalta hai” attitude we had as Indians.
The plastic flowers were Sakura flowers, Chef’s favourite. Sakura flowers are fragile and last only few weeks, so there was no way to have fresh Sakura flowers all the time. For him the flowers symbolized perfection, delicate beauty and fragility – they represented the ethos of the food that was served in the restaurant and hence the Chef preferred these even though they were not the real flowers. They are a reminder to all, of the essence of that restaurant.
As I left the restaurant, the whole experience got me thinking. In my consulting work we help organisations build a desired culture. And one of the questions that senior managers from global organisations always ask me is, how can we have a consistent culture across countries, when there are so many local traditions and nuances one has to work with. I think the restaurant and the Chef’s approach holds some lessons for anyone interested in creating a consistent culture in their organisation.
Every organisation needs to ask “what is the cultural ethos that we never want to compromise, irrespective of where we operate?”, “What is the experience our stake holders must have regardless of where we are located?” “What are some things that are so foundational to our greatness, that we will never compromise them?” When there are clear answers to these questions, local adaptability is not difficult to manage. Local adaptability becomes an issue to only those who do not have an understanding of their inner core. When not rooted firmly, even a small wind can uproot you.
There is a difference between adapting to local environment and keeping the core values intact. For example for some American companies functionality and scale are part of their core ethos, and it is very deeply embedded in the way they think and act. So whether they operate in Mexico or India, the filter used to make strategic decisions will always look at these two elements. No local culture will be at cross purpose with functionality and scale. No one will say I want a product or a service that is complex and cannot be scaled up. Likewise McDonalds, while integrating products to suit the local palette, will not compromise on their mantra of speed. Or DuPont on their core value of safety and Mercedes will build local capability, but not at the expense of engineering excellence. Likewise, I remember few years ago a senior executive of a Wall Street firm telling me that “we are about speed of response at the market place. So give me an application today that might only be 78% perfect. If you wait to give something 100% perfect tomorrow, most likely it will be obsolete”. His firm was about “always first to respond”.
Once the core values are identified, it is important to have symbols and rituals in place to remind everyone of the essence of the culture. To reinforce what is needed and discourage that which comes in the way of the professed culture. Sakura flowers, they may be plastic, but are a symbol. A reminder to all. No ingredient however expensive, does not make its way to the table. And all know why they are doing what they are doing and can tell the story of their greatness with pride.
When what one stands for is clearly defined and expressed in a way that it shows it’s inherent universal value, in my experience no one disagrees with it. Whatever the local culture, who is going to argue or disagree with a culture that promotes “defect free” product, “innovation” at the heart of an organisation, a “safe work environment” or “collaborative work practices”?
Creating a unique culture and a memorable customer experience requires uncompromising focus on the foundational values. When that happens local traditions and practices do not come in the way. They begin to get influenced by the higher set of values and behaviours. Even plastic flowers come alive!