All I Really Need to Know about Lean I Learned at Waffle House [guest post]

Ok, so the title is a little overreaching, but so was, “All I really need to know about life I learned in kindergarten,” and that didn’t stop that email from being forwarded a few million times.

My learning experience began at about 4 a.m., while sitting at a Waffle House counter with my buddy. He was dozing in his seat.

No, we weren’t up early because we couldn’t wait to start the day’s kaizen. It was the weekend and we were at the end of our evening…but, I digress.

Sitting at the counter, I was unusually alert for the hour. My intensity came from a focus on getting some food into me.

The Waffle House had its usual pre-dawn crowd and the staff was seating tables as fast as they could clear the debris from the previous customers.

No sooner than I had given my order to the waitress, I heard her call it out to a cook who seemed to continuously throw food on the grill. He was in constant motion, never slowing down to ask for an order to be repeated.

I further noticed that the wait staff never gave the cook any written record of the order. Diners all have tickets on spinning wheels, right?! At least that’s the way they’re portrayed on TV.

And the cook never wrote anything down. Heck, he didn’t have any available time for writing.

"Oh great,” I thought, “I’m going to get something other than my precise culinary selection.”

Well, to my surprise, my plate showed up exactly as requested!

So, as I inhaled my meal, I watched the cook prepare 25-30 plates without once stopping to ask about an order. It was at this point that I began to seriously question whether or not I possessed the mental capacity necessary to be a successful Waffle House cook.

This sobering and burning question bothered me throughout the day. Now, no offense to Waffle House cooks, they’ve been very good to me over the years, but their pay grade doesn’t seem to square with super memory and perception powers…

Fast forward to the next week.  Still doubting that I would ever have the right stuff to be a Waffle House cook, I returned to the Waffle House to do what my sensei had taught me first - direct observation.

My direct observation was both fruitful and easy. Seems that the Waffle House employs quite a bit of standard work. It turned out, like with all good magic tricks, I had been fooled by watching all the motion (the cook) instead of what the assistant was doing. I found that the shukimi goes something like this:

  1. There are 3 operators working together - waitress, prep station operator, and cook.
  2. Upon taking an order, the waitress walks to a prescribed spot (there’s an X on the floor for good visual control) and calls the order out in a specific manner. This keeps multiple orders from being called at the same time and in fact is the single point for scheduling.
  3. Orders are called out one seat at a time regardless of the number of people at the table - single piece flow with 100% MTO as their finished goods strategy.
  4. As the waitress calls the orders, the cook grabs his tools (which are stored point of use with some good 5S) and pulls materials from his kanban (which has been stored with minimal packaging).
  5. While the cook is focused on getting the cooking started, it’s the prep station that is in fact capturing the details of the order. Here are some examples:
    1. One plate representing each order is queued up in order of receipt - FIFO
    2. “Kit” items are placed on the plate to indicate the specific details of the order. A jelly packet right side up means one type of toast while upside down means another.
    3. A single butter pack indicates one waffle, while two means two waffles.
    4. A single hash brown is laid on the plate in an orientation that indicates well done, smothered with onions, or some variety of ingredients.
    5. A slice of cheese on one side of the plate means hash browns scattered and covered. If the cheese has a different plate position, it calls for scrambled eggs with cheese.
    6. Plates are lined up on the buckboard until full. A full buckboard tells the waitress to stop calling orders for a few minutes and also tells the manager they may need a 2nd cook – a brilliantly simple application of visual management.
    7. The cook matches up the food on the grill with the order as defined by the visual on the plate. This drives standard presentation to the customer. Once completed, the cook signals for a pick-up. The waitress doesn’t need to ask which plates are complete as she can identify at a quick glance.

The Waffle House system is impressive in its simplicity and effectiveness. As for the writing-free environment, the cook can scan the plate line from a distance and understand requirements much more quickly that reading a written ticket. Bottom line, the Waffle House’s system eliminates a great deal of waste while expertly delivering on service level expectations.

While I am not likely to switch careers (though I am relieved that, if needed, I might be able to cut it as a cook), I do believe that there is an opportunity for Waffle House-like visual scheduling in many industries.

Just imagine if your operation’s make-to-order demand requirements could be flawlessly communicated throughout the value stream using only those items that are contained within the finished goods…like a home fry.

John Domagala authored this guest post. He has spent the last 25 working in manufacturing, most recently in the electronics industry. Trained as a Master Black Belt by GE and exposed to the Toyota Production System 8 years ago by Mr. Nakao, much of John's focus is facilitating lean transformations.

Another related breakfast food post: Beyond Toast Kaizen – Lean Breakfast Concepts, Circa 1937 [guest post],

There are 4 Comments

David Williams's picture

Hi Mark/John

Great to hear this story again and finally see it written down!

Best regards,


markrhamel's picture

Hi David,

Thanks for the comment. Maybe it's time for a Waffle House in Dublin, Ireland!

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi Stephen,

Thanks so much for the comment.

Subway is a great example! The operation is relatively lean, from the glass window so that the customer can better see the ingredients and guide the sandwich maker(s), to the sandwich flow with no reversals, to the flow of the sandwich makers (often using a circuit approach).

Best regards,

Stephen Cherlet's picture

This is a great story and similar to my own experience at SUBWAY restaurants (sandwich shops).

I love to watch as the team uses their cross-training to move forward and back by one work position in the line to balance the flow in case something gets backed up.

Example - if there is a bottleneck and finishing/wrapping then the cashier slips over to help out and catch up then moves down to process the payments. Same thing with each person in the line.

Its nice to watch.