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"Eat Yourself Lean, Competitively" Kobayashi, Coney Island & Kaizen (#33)


Today's blog: The kaizen mind of a competitive eater & why this isn't entirely what we're aiming for in developing lean capability.


I have a hunch that a large number of lean people enjoy the work of Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt, the authors of "Freakonomics" & "Superfreakonomics". The allure of entertaining, data driven analysis coupled with a clear understanding of correlation/causation is tough to resist. The post that follows was inspired by a chapter of their latest book "Think Like a Freak".


Takeru Kobayashi, a surprisingly lean (pun intended) champion competitive eater, graces the photo at the head of this post. Whilst he stands at a diminutive 173 cm (5 ft 8 in) and weighs in at a sylph like 58 kg (128 lb) Kobayashi is a giant in his field. My American friends will know him well from the annual 'Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest'


It's fair to say that Kobayashi is well into the twilight of his career but he remains a prime example of Kaizen mind; the kind of attitude we all need to drive our businesses forward. I stumbled across Kobayashi during a casual surfing session and had the feeling that he was a natural continuous improvement thinker. Luckily, Dubner & Levitt in their book "Think Like a Freak" have done the hard work for me by dissecting Kobayashi's approach to his, ahem, 'craft'. 


Below I'll pull out a few lines from the text of "Think Like a Freak" (italicised below) interspersed with a little lean commentary of my own. The kicker comes when I argue that, while this is impressive, it doesn't constitute ideal lean thinking.


The authors introduce Kobayashi thus:


"He begins to speak, quietly but intensely, about how he trained for his first Coney Island competition. Those months in isolation, it turned out, were one long bout of experimentation and feedback"


They continue:


"Kobayashi had observed that most Coney Island eaters used a similar strategy...essentially a sped-up version of how the average person eats a hot dog at a backyard barbeque...Kobayashi wondered if perhaps there was a better way"


In a fine one-man intuitive example of Industrial Engineering Kobayashi challenged fixed ideas with the following PDCA style trials:


1) Breaking the bun & dog in half, giving more options for "chewing and loading"whilst giving his hands "some of the work that would otherwise occupy his mouth"

2) He stopped eating the bun and dog together as it "created a density conflict". The salty slippery dogs slid down rapidly on their own (a picture beautifully painted by Dubner & Levitt)

3) The bun, however, "was still a problem...So Kobayashi tried something different. As he was feeding himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun in his water cup. Then he'd squeeze out most of the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth"


You get the picture. Kobayashi went on to videotape his performance, create his equivalent of a Work Combination Table and consider his overall physical strategy, diet & muscle development. The next two pages illuminate enough talent for our dog devouring friend to walk into an Industrial Engineering job in any number of top-notch businesses.


In short order Kobayashi doubled the existing records and was promptly accused of cheating or having the good fortune to be born a genetic freak. As Dubner & Levitt conclude; "The best evidence against this argument is that his competition began to catch up with him", especially Joey "Jaws Chestnut" who secured seven Coney Island wins on the bounce. 


Here comes the kicker; as impressive as Kobayashi is; in a lean business setting it's a partial success story. Our end game is to engage as many people as possible in Kaizen, every day. The measure of Kobayashi in a lean sense would be a string of protégés generating their own Kaizens, running their own experiments to surpass their teacher. He, of course, had no incentive to do this. We, on the other hand, have few other viable survival options.

A sprinkling of gifted, prolific individuals will never match the power of the many making regular small improvements.


This is the approach I have taken with clients addicted to scheduling and running Kaizen events at the expense of developing the capability of people to improve the process as a part of their daily job. I've paraphrased him before, and I'll probably do so again:


"My job is not to do my job, It is to improve the way I do my job" Gary Convis


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