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Learning about Lean business: lessons from a butcher

Lean business

September 30, 2016

Sometimes inspiration can come from unlikely sources. When I popped into my local butcher this week to buy some steaks I had an unexpected light bulb moment in relation to Lean business. I’m not about to start making weak puns about cutting off the fat in your organisation, but observing the butcher serving customers and surveying the varied selection of meat on display, it occurred to me that there’s a lot to learn from how he runs his (highly successful) business.

As I waited to be served and idly browsed the display cabinet, I was genuinely amazed at how much variety he had created from just three or four animal sources. Not just the different cuts, but by understanding what his customers want and adding value to various products – such as marinating or stuffing them – he had been innovative and responded to end-user demand.

Listening to him serve, it was clear that he had a deep understanding of what his customers need from his business, whether they were experienced cooks or just wanted a simple ‘ready meal’ to put straight in the oven. From the shopping experience to the dinner table, it was all about exceeding their expectations and creating value.

There were some interesting Lean business lessons in waste too. He sources the vast majority of his meat from local farms which has a positive impact on his supply chain. His stock holdings are kept to a minimum, his transportation costs are low and it gives him greater control over product quality. The closeness of his relationship with his suppliers means that he can react quickly if there are problems and also make the most of unexpected opportunities.  As I’ve written about before, strong supplier relationships are key to maintaining a Lean supply chain.

When it was my turn to be served I was concerned that my steak supper plans were about to be derailed as the person before me bought the last two steaks! Again, I was impressed and surprised by the butcher’s reaction. When I said, “Please tell me you have more steaks out the back!” he didn’t even pause before grabbing a large joint from the cabinet. Fearing that he was about to persuade me to buy a rib of beef instead, he offered to cut me a “nice bit of sirloin”. A few slashes of his knife later there were six beautiful steaks on the block, trimmed and ready to grill.  Thanks to his skill and adaptability, he had a happy customer and I had my steaks.

You wouldn’t get that in a supermarket.

Looking at the bones, fat and off-cuts of meat left to one side however, I was concerned about them being wasted. I needn’t have worried.  He told me that the meat would be minced or used in one of their award-winning pies, the fat would be rendered and the bones would be boiled for stock. In fact, as a business they waste almost nothing as they have a policy of ‘upcycling’ as much as possible from every animal they buy. This strategy of adding value and reducing waste lies at the heart of Lean business.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my trip to the butcher is that Lean business inspiration can be found all around us.  It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day running of your business and focusing your attentions on your particular industry, but there is so much value to be found in looking outside our familiar surroundings. Benchmarking against others in your sector absolutely has its place, but don’t forget to explore the wider world and be open to learning from the unlikeliest of sources.

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