Lean Lesson from a Waitress and a Salt Shaker

Lean Lesson from a Waitress and a Salt Shaker

As the waitress took my drink order, I was relieved, as my first impression was that I was going to receive good service.  In the end, I received excellent service and I actually got more than I expected.  Upon her return, she smiled and asked me to set the salt shaker on the outside edge of the table when I was ready for her to return.  She explained that she didn’t like her customers to feel rushed and she had picked up  this little trick to signal her when the customer is ready.  I know that not everyone is as “Lean Geeky” as I am, so I don’t expect everyone to agree that this was that extraordinary.

The Lean trainer in me was going bazonkers and it took every bit of self-control I had to not begin a lecture about Sakichi Toyoda and how in 1902, he invented a simple mechanism for his automated loom that stopped the machine when a thread broke.  This is what is known in the TPS world as “Jidoka”, or “automation with the human touch” and is one of the two pillars of the Toyota Production System.  The concept is simple but ingenious, by detecting an abnormality and stopping the process automatically, no defects will be passed along to the next operation (or the customer) and no material or labor will be unnecessarily lost.

But now that the machine is stopped, how does someone know that attention is required?  This is where Andon comes in to play.  Andon is the Japanese word meaning “paper lantern” but is used in the lean world as a signal identifying the need for help.  When a machine is stopped because of an abnormality, a signal light will automatically come on and the correct person will be notified.  When a worker on a moving assembly line has a problem and needs help, they pull an andon cord.  By pulling the andon cord, the appropriate person(s) will be aware of the problem and respond.  This accomplishes many things:

  1. Workers don’t have to go looking for help.
  2. Workers don’t feel that they have to “work through” their problems. This can turn into rework becoming part of the process.
  3. It creates a visual awareness that something is wrong, which encourages root cause problem solving. If root cause problem solving is not done, andon lights will be continuously on.

So what this crafty restaurant server had figured out was that she could provide the best customer service by applying her time to things that provided value and not wasting her time by prematurely asking me if I was ready to order.  It also enhanced my experience by eliminating annoying interruptions.  She also made sure that she would not be neglectful when her attention was needed by using the “andon”.  Almost every restaurant table in the U.S. has a salt shaker on it, it is usually located in a standard location on the table and it is filled with beaconing bright white ionized granules.

As I said, I didn’t bother her with the story of Toyoda-san and the birth of Jidoka and Andon, but I did let her know that her “little trick” is a very prominent tool used in what is considered to be the most efficient manufacturing system in the world.  She did admit that she didn’t invent the salt shaker signal, but when a colleague of hers exposed her to it, she thought it made sense, so she adopted it for her own.  Kudos to her for seeing an opportunity that made sense, even though it isn’t the standard protocol, she adopted it.

Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself. ~Alfred Sheinwold

All too often, companies miss out on taking advantage of the tremendously beneficial practices that Toyota and other companies have adopted because they don’t use the same good sense.   Just because your company is not exactly like Toyota, doesn’t mean you can’t adopt TPS practices.  It might not be practical for you to run a cord around your business that activates a light and a buzzer if someone pulls it, but you might be able to use a modified version to achieve the same benefit.  Don’t use the excuse that, “TPS tools won’t work here because we are not Toyota”.  Instead, put effort into deeply understanding the value of the tools and what problems they solve so you can adapt them to your own environment.  Remember, someone like this waitress may end up working for your competition some day.

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  1. Avi Dalvi
    November 30, 2014 08:05 Reply

    Great observation. This is a logical technique explained simply. I work as an Industrial Engineer for an Automotive supplier company. My true passion is lean manufacturing, learning it and applying it.

    I have seen my companies apply Andon lights, but don’t utilize their true potential. I have seen people on the assembly line doing retries, rework and even repairs on the machine. Their argument is “the part is on the assembly line if we reject we have to reintroduce it to the line and end up spending more time. Also their (FPY)first pass yield/ (FTQ) first time quality number goes south.” And of course they like to analyze the line rejects mostly at the end of the shift.

    Any thoughts on what can be done?


  2. rob@leangenesis.com
    December 06, 2014 19:48 Reply

    Thanks for the comment Avi,
    Here are my thoughts:
    The Lean philosophy is always loyal to the “big picture” and “long term thinking”. To protect FPY and FTQ by correcting them on the line is suggesting that they are probably sacrificing productivity and efficiency but most importantly, they are stopping problem solving from taking place by hiding the issue. This is neither big picture or thinking long term, for they are only protecting one KPI and sacrificing another and the problem will never be fixed.
    As with many tools in the TPS toolbox, it is vital that the ENTIRE system is thought out and implemented, even with something as simple as Andon. Installing a signal light is one of the steps, but Andon requires a rock solid response system to back it up. So when the alarm is sounded, who comes running and what do they do about it? If nobody comes or the response is too slow, the operators will lose faith and eventually stop participating. If the response is weak (like reworking on-line), the operators will probably lose faith as well.
    As I talk about in my post: http://leangenesis.com/harmony-tools-and-commitment/, many of the lean tools are connected. Without a solid understanding of PDCA, the responders may not know what to do when they are notified of a problem. Lean tools may seem simple, but by stepping back and thinking about how the tools are intertwined and complementary to each other, we really gain a sincere appreciation for the intricacy of it as an overall system. I think this is why so many of us are so passionate about it.

  3. February 22, 2017 09:25 Reply

    That really caprtues the spirit of it. Thanks for posting.

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