What Startups can learn from a Sushi Chef

Thomas Schranz
Feb 14, 2015 · 6 min read

Just recently I re-watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a wonderful documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old sushi chef from Japan who leads a tiny 8 seat sushi bar located in a Tokyo subway station.

It repeatedly got awarded with 3 out of 3 Michelin stars and is known as the best place in the world to get sushi.

Jiro Ono, a Japanese chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro

I first stumbled upon the documentary a few months back when Jason Evanish published his own recommendation. Since then I’ve seen it a couple of times on various occasions and it always is a true joy to watch.

I believe as Product Managers we all can learn a lot from Jiro, especially when it comes to hard nuts to crack like hiring, quality assurance and leadership …

Strive for Perfection

Who defines when something is ‘good enough’? Who cares?

We live in a world of ‘good enough’. People talk about diminishing returns, finding the sweet spot and 80/20.

We easily forget that in order to create something that truly stands out and delights customers it takes vision, passion and standards that are way beyond ‘standard’.

I would make sushi in my dreams.
— Jiro Ono

Often you will have to set your own standards since ‘industry standard’ or being ‘better than the competition’ will cause you to aim way lower than you could.

I feel this is the reason why sometimes whole industries get disrupted by people who are ‘outsiders’ that naively expected way more than any of the incumbents were used to deliver.

Set your own standards and live by them. Push the boundaries. Lead by example.

If it doesn’t taste good, you can’t serve it.
— Jiro Ono

I’m not surprised that everyone I know is drawn to the companies that produce the best products. Who cares about companies that do mediocre work? I don’t even want to imagine how hard it must be for these companies to attract talent.

Own your Mistakes

A brief conversation about the ideal thinness of a slice

If you carefully watch the interactions and incredibly tight feedback loops of his team you will find that every time someone points out what could have been done better it is acknowledged and immediately executed. No arguing, no rationalization attempts, no excuses.

His team is as motivated to strive for perfection as Jiro himself. If a shortcoming is discovered you will hear a short hai (japanese for yes, I understand) and people are back in the flow, striving to do better.

I believe it is an art to separate your own ego from the work you are doing. This is related to something I found in the Heroku values

Strong opinions, weakly held.
— Bob Johansen, IFTF Distinguished Fellow

On the one hand you want to be passionate about what you are doing but on the other hand you don’t want to let your ego get in the way of a better solution. You don’t win by being right all the time, you win by identifying things that are great wherever they came from.

Manage Expectations

Jiro’s staff working with dedication. Like a clockwork.

If you apply for a job at Jiro’s sushi bar you know what you are getting yourself into. It will take about 10 years of dedicated work until you’ll be allowed to cook tamagoyaki (egg sushi). It takes a long time of training and personal growth until Jiro considers you a shokunin (master craftsman).

It seems like Jeff Bezos of Amazon also isn’t shy about communicating his expectations

You can work long, hard, or smart,
but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.

— Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon

This is what he told potential recruits back in 1997. In the middle of the dot-com bubble where hiring top talent was extremely difficult and in a climate where other companies were offering ridiculous employee perks.

Taste your own Cooking

Jiro’s staff tasting their own sushi of the day

Jiro and his staff are constantly preparing and tasting their ingredients and final products. Every day, many times a day.

Eating your own dog food is a great way to get into the shoes of your customers. Many software companies test-drive preview versions of their products internally and or with a tiny fraction of their customer base before they release the changes to everyone.

It is hard to assure quality if you don’t care about how your own food tastes like. Caring more than others is a real competitive advantage. Ingrained in the company culture and incredibly hard to copy.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo even refused to get broadband installed at home until the majority of US households got it in order to get an authentic experience of the products she was responsible for (back then at Google).

Your Suppliers are Part of your Team

The local fish market, an essential supplier that enables the quality Jiro strives for

It makes a lot of sense to regard your suppliers as part of your team. Whether it is the local fish market that enables Jiro to serve the highest quality sushi that is available or the programming languages, libraries and 3rd party services and platforms you use to build and deliver your product.

Companies like Apple take this to the extreme. They tightly work together with their suppliers to help them succeed. Tim Cook ,who led Apple’s operations for many years has built one of the most impressive supply chains of the IT world. Whether it is gorilla glass, CPUs, memory or other essential parts, Apple’s focus on healthy supply chain relationships is one of the reasons they are able to create the products people fall in love with.


Jiro’s infinite passion about creating the perfect sushi is what drives all of the observations I made. Whether it is tightly controlling the supply chain, choosing to only work with the best people (whether that means his staff or his suppliers) or his obsession about helping people grow and enabling them to do their best — Passion is his fuel.

If you find something you really care about, other things tend to fall into place. In the end everyone cares about great products & passion — customers, partners, investors, potential hires and employees.

If you found this post helpful follow me on twitter where I tweet about Software Development & Product Management ☺

Also make sure to check out Blossom.
It’s an Agile/Lean Project Management Tool I’m currently working on ☺

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