If Chipotle Were Lean, Their Record Wu’d Be Clean

With the announcement that new e-coli outbreaks across the mid-West have been detected in Chipotle stores (in addition to the recent November outbreak in Washington and Oregon), I’m reminded of recurring issues in almost every organization I’ve been involved in. Issues and problems the leaders saw creep up over and over again. Only in this case, the recurring problem is as serious as it gets, namely life threatening. My sincere empathy goes out to any customer who has suffered from a food-borne illness. I too have unknowingly ingested tainted food that ultimately put me in a state of immobility, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

If Chipotle managed their expansive global operation with lean thinking, they most likely would not be facing the situation they are in today (CMG stock at 535 yesterday from 757 high). Here’s why. A company practicing lean thinking solves their problems by fixing the process, and process thinking comes in five parts:

Manage the Process to Get Quality
  1. The procedure that is followed to consistently get the desired result. For Chipotle, this would be the methods they use to get the lettuce, tomatoes, bread etc. from the farms/bakeries to their restaurants, and the procedures they follow to store, prepare, and serve the final meals.


  1. The equipment that is used to help make the product. Chipotle’s trucks, containers, bins, refrigerators, ovens, etc.


  1. The material that goes into making the product. The actual ingredients Chipotle puts into the meals.


  1. The measurement of the products that are being made. Chipotle’s checks and quality assurance inspections to insure continuous feedback that everything meets their standards (and the FDA’s as well as other external standards).


  1. The people who put all of the above together in order to make the product. That would be Chipotle’s talent.

Lean thinkers pursue consistency (translated into high quality) by insuring each of these parts of a process is as close to the optimal goal as possible. Anytime something goes wrong, their problem solving assesses how far away from that optimal goal, each part of the process is. The problem solving is designed to find a countermeasure that will get an errant part of the process back to standard.

Stop Blaming the Talent

In comparison, the most common starting point for companies that don’t employ lean thinking is “What did you do wrong?” This question implies it is the fault of the person who is doing the work when the problem is discovered. The most common fix for not-lean-thinkers is “Pay more attention from now on!” One of my first activities at a new client is to pull out as many quality alerts as I can find, to see what the “final fix” is. More often than not, the problem is assessed as worker error or oversight, and the fix is to pay more attention. Sometimes it’s even punitive, wrongly so due to the obvious reason that there are four other candidates to look at before we ever need to assess the role of the talent.

I don’t know what Chipotle is doing at this time (besides closing the stores where known incidents occurred). I do know that they experienced major food borne incidents twice before, as little as three months ago. I also know that if Chipotle approached their food making experience using the process-oriented problem solving I’ve outlined above, they would probably not be facing their fourth mass-store closing in such a short period of time.

The Blame Game Won’t Get You Quality

Chipotle’s answer (and that of many food chains) may be that it was the tomatoes, or some raw ingredient they used. To lean thinkers, all materials are part of the system and therefore can/must be 100% defect free. You can’t produce a defect free product with material that isn’t completely defect free, right? IT folks know this as garbage in, garbage out.

If you’re thinking 100% defect free is impossible, fair enough. That’s a topic for another time. But for now, just know that if Chipotle were operating under lean management principles, there would not have been a second outbreak of food borne illness in any of their stores, let alone a third and fourth one.

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About Jim

I am the founder of the Lean Expert Academy and a previous partner in the Lean Leadership Institute with Jeff Liker (The Toyota Way), Paul Akers (2 Second Lean) and Norm Bodek (Productivity Press Founder). We train Lean consultants to implement the exact same methodology and techniques that you can learn here. I will be releasing my first book, Lean 2.0: How to Dominate Your Industry Using Lea(R)n Thinking very soon.

I believe the days of suboptimal results of command & control management models will be replaced within this decade, and you are a driver in that transition. I believe that we are at the tipping point of a new era, an era where everything that has the name “management” attached to it, will be done with Lean thinking and Lean management.

I know for a fact, after years of being deep in the trenches of making change happen, that implementing Lean is not that hard to do. It’s actually quite easy if you follow the right steps, and my course shows you exactly how to achieve that outcome.

My goal and mission is to produce as many excellent Lean thinking leaders as possible – to arm you with the ability to recreate what I and my team of consultants have been doing consistently for many years. If you are serious about seeing Lean spread more quickly, please join me.

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