There’s an article by Toh Yong Chuan in the Straits Times 31 October 2013, titled “The difference a soup ladle makes” discussing his observations as to how Japanese restaurants continuously improve productivity. The soup ladle of the headline was one he saw at restaurant chain Yoshinoya’s training school.
During my visit, a trainer explained that the ladles used to scoop up the beef portions at all its restaurants have 47 holes each. The holes are designed to allow just the right amount of gravy to flow into the rice.
The ladles come in two lengths – one about 30cm, the other some 10cm longer. The reason: a taller person can use the longer ladle without having to bend his back
— Straits Times, 31 Oct 2013, The difference a soup ladle makes, by Toh Yong Chuan
He also wrote about the coming demise of the conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Applying information technology as gateway to mass customisation,
Diners punch in orders on iPads. Sushi is delivered to tables or bar counters on compact disk-sized trays that run on tracks. Customers pick up their orders and push a button which sends the trays back to the kitchen.
This cuts down wastage since food is prepared according to orders. In a conveyor belt system, sushi is prepared in anticipation of demand. Items not picked up are discarded after some time.
Since orders are captured electronically, the absurdly low-tech practice (which we see in all conveyor belt restaurants) where a server has to be summoned to come count your coloured plates, can be dispensed with.
I found the article thought-provoking, but also quite depressing. I can’t see Singapore businesses following in these footsteps anytime soon.
By that, I don’t mean buying the technology and the machines that the Japanese have invented, I mean following the footsteps of inventiveness. For a country, the value-add in inventing something new and selling it to the world is naturally much greater than the value-add of buying somebody else’s machines and saving a few workers in a handful of domestic businesses.
What will it take to emulate such management attitudes and to realise ideas? I think it needs an overhaul of management attitudes, a rising number of engineers at the core of businesses, and vitally, a cosmos of supporting industries that can design, programme and manufacture unique machines. I think all three are lacking in Singapore.
Engineering-minded management and shortage of engineers
Management has to approach their business processes with an engineering frame of mind, constantly looking for ways to make small improvements and ironing out kinks. However, I have a suspicion that Singapore doesn’t produce enough engineers. Quite often, when I meet an engineer, I meet a foreigner. My guess is that for too long, it’s been seen as a non-white colour career, more “technician” than “professional”. For too many Singaporeans, engineering is not in the same league as medicine or law. So now, when business owners and managers don’t have engineering-like analytical skills, and without engineers at the core of their organisations, business process improvement is very difficult to pull off.
Some things you can organise by moving people around or redefining job tasks, but if the aim is to make a substantial leap in productivity, ultimately one will have to start asking oneself, “how can such-and-such be achieved without humans at all?” I very much doubt if anyone can find an answer to such a question in most businesses without considerable involvement of engineers.
Suppose a client needs a machine that makes prata, one that can replicate the dexterity of human hands. Clearly, the machine has to have sensors that can detect the edge of the dough, and moving parts that grip, flip and fold. Then it needs to be placed on a hotplate for a defined period to cook it, while being basted with butter ghee.
And I’ll say this only half in jest: We better have such a machine real soon before the present generation of prata makers die out and prata becomes haute cuisine (due to rarity) that costs $45 each. Or else we’ll have to keep importing “foreign talent” to knead dough and flip the flatbread.
Of course, the machine doesn’t have to perform with this level of showmanship:
And why are we still washing dishes by hand in countless food courts in Singapore?
Nor does invention, with the aim of reducing labour use, have to be restricted to food businesses. Can we please have a machine that will custom tailor shirts and trousers for me, after I have punched in my unflattering measurements? Think about it. When we go to a custom tailor, he takes about 12 – 15 measurements and a few days later a shirt or a pair of trousers come out. The persons who cut and sew obviously work to a template in the backroom. Isn’t this ripe for automation?
Shoes may be a bit harder, but in principle not different from shirts and trousers.
How about a machine that can do gift-wrapping? Or a haircut robot — at least for men’s short styles — which I’m pretty sure isn’t that hard with present day technology.
Need an ecology
However, beware of pipe-dreams.
More crucially, even if some smart guys think up new machines or quasi-robot solutions, who will make them? There’s a whole industry that is needed; for want of a better name, I’ll call it micro-manufacturing. In my mind’s eye, they’re a collection of small, typically family-run, firms that care a lot about quality. They cast metal objects to custom shapes, they lathe with precision, they design and implant electronic circuits that are one of a kind, which are linked to algorithms specially worked out for particular processes. These companies make prototypes and then improve the prototypes until they have a reliable breakthrough product. But they do this in collaboration with clients who need never-invented-before machines, and with a host of other quality-minded firms that supply parts (including custom-made parts) and components. For example, if a proposed new machine needs a special kind of glass with specific properties made to a predefined shape, where in Singapore would one find such a component supplier?
It’s a known fact in economics that having an ecology of interlocking businesses and technologies geographically close to each other (for better collaboration and exchange of test-parts) produces immense competitive advantage that is hard for others to duplicate. German and Japanese prowess in engineering is well known — and the Japanese are also moving ahead marrying that base with robotic technology. What is illuminative is that their strengths come from having a myriad of small specialist firms. In the long run, I reckon it will stand these countries in far better stead, because they create knowledge rather than extract rent. Certainly better than those countries which rely on financial wizardry, tourism (and gambling), construction, real estate and ever larger pools of cheap labour to drive their economies. Oops, does that sound like us?
Catching up or wasting money?
To be fair, our policy-makers may (at last) have come to a similar conclusion. The Singapore University of Technology and Design is starting up, though it may take 20 years before, with any luck, their graduates are experienced and good enough to show results (if ever). More importantly, will these graduates want to work in safe jobs in big companies? How many will become entrepreneurs creating start-ups that grow into specialist, quality-obsessed firms?
And then the question: where are the client firms? Where are the managers that are driven to look for ways to automate and reinvent their business processes, and which provide the demand for the hoped-for specialist engineering firms to thrive?
We are still doing things piecemeal. We need to break up some government-owned monoliths and the huge property companies that drive rents up by their lock on commercial and industrial properties, and tilt the playing field in favour of small businesses. Otherwise what we’re investing in producing engineers will be wasted because the environment is not conducive.
Ending on a down-note
As I mentioned above, I am not even sure that we’re at the starting gate. In my view, managements of small businesses in Singapore (generally speaking, of course) still do not understand the crucial importance of continuous process improvement, without which we can forget about automation. I have no sorrier tale of this attitude problem than of the “Chinese mixed rice” stall at Plaza Singapura’s food court on the 6th floor.
It does many things right, but in my view, the business is dying, because it doesn’t even realise it is doing one thing wrong — one thing that is ridiculously easy to fix. It doesn’t even have to involve bringing in engineers and designing custom-made machines!
In the early part of the evening, the stall has a wide selection of dishes. The cooks are okay; I have never had a problem with their cooking. But after 7 pm, while many other stalls in the food court are still as busy as ever, their custom falls off rapidly. Why? Because their buffet of dishes has gone cold.
They can easily solve this by installing heaters on the counter to keep the buffet warm. Or they can purchase a few microwave ovens to heat up customers’ plates after they have picked their toppings over rice.
I am sure that I am not the only customer who has been disappointed in being served cold food. The fact that their sales crash after 7 pm or 7:30 pm suggests that many others have learnt to avoid them. The amazing thing is that neither the staff nor management seem to be aware that they have this major, major failing in customer service. Nobody in all these years has bothered to enquire.
How do we get any kind of improvement, productivity- or automation-wise, if there’s no drive to do better?