11th November 2021
Tucked away in a basement beneath the veritable hustle of Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district – a literal stone’s throw away from a subway station – Sukiyabashi Jiro’s restaurant doors open for another day. Geared to serve 10 discerning gourmet voyeurs paying upwards of $350 dollars for the privilege of a seat, this is sushi with a difference.
Behind spotless mahogany and beige service bar parading meticulously placed sets of gloss-black crockery waiting to be caressed by Tokyo fish market’s latest and greatest stands Jiro Ono – the 86 year-old owner, sushi master and adorned Japanese “Living National Treasure”.
Falling into the sushi game at an early age after being forced out of the house by his alcoholic father with the parting words “you have no home to come back to”, Jiro’s 76 years in the business have seen him reach heights deemed impossible by his predecessors.
He’s created new methods of sushi preparation, built a channel of quality vendors that serve a range of produce exclusive to him and him alone, and has maintained Sukiyabashi Jiro as a Michelin Guide 3-star restaurant for over four years. And if that wasn’t enough, he also holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to own the three-star acolade.
Indeed, such is the shokunin’s success that he’s recently had a documentary made about his life and work – a must see for anyone looking to inspire their soul and readdress working perspectives. But while it’s clear that Jiro’s dedication to everything sushi was the driving force behind his initial success – understanding how he continues to transcend the norms of achievement requires an appreciation of a philosophy that blends life with work. So while you could be excused for thinking the only time the worlds of sushi and executive business ever meet are over lunch, the disciplines to succeed in both are closer than you’d think.
With that in mind, below are the four biggest business lessons executives looking to turbo charge their already successful operations can learn from Jiro in his documentary, Jiro: Dreams Of Sushi:
Yamamoto, one of Japan’s most recognised food writers, says that people always ask of Jiro’s sushi, “How can something so simple have so much depth of flavour?” You need people to be asking the same about your product or service.
He goes even further to boil down what that means for Jiro – namely that his “ultimate simplicity leads to purity”. What impurities can you see within your operations? Find them, work back to the source and address their complexities. Simplifying shouldn’t mean ‘dumbing down’, but rather utilising your energy on the core elements of your business to lead your operation down a purer path.
“Our shrimp vendor only sells shrimp. Each vendor is a specialist in [their] field. We are experts in sushi, but in each of their specialities the vendors are more knowledgeable. We’ve built up a relationship of trust with them,” explains Jiro.
Who are you outsourcing to? What are your relationships like with them? Do you trust your solution providers to take you further? Knowledge isn’t just about what you know – it’s about trusting your sources. Build relationships on a mutual passion and you’ll unveil new intellectual perspectives and leverage fresh roots to market.
To put it another way: Would Jiro’s tuna sushi remain world-renowned if he didn’t have a superior product that was exclusively reserved by his vendor? Potentially. Would his gap between him and the competition close? Certainly.
“I was creating sushi that didn’t exist. I would dream of sushi. I would jump out of bed at night with ideas…all I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There’s always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.
“Even at my age, I don’t think I have achieved perfection – but I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of Shokunin.”
Perhaps the most important lesson learnt from Jiro is this idea of incessant improvement and becoming what the Japanese refer to as Shokunin. There is no end goal. Goals merely evolve. When Jiro was an apprentice, he was told to massage octopuses for 30 minutes in a bid to release their fragrance prior to cooking. That was 40 years ago.
Today, Jiro tells his apprentices to massage the very same species for 40-50 minutes. This might not sound like much, but it’s had exceptional effects on the taste of his ‘octo-dishes’ (and I’m sure, their prices, too).
As an executive, you should never stop improving everything around you. From people to processes, nothing ever reaches efficiency nirvana. If it’s inefficient, improve it. If it’s excelling, make it untouchable. If it’s dying, understand why and learn from it. No matter what industry or position you’re sat in – never rest on your laurels. As Jiro says himself, there is no top to the mountain. The view just gets better.
“Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success – and the key to being regarded honourably.”
To build on success you have to compromise – but that compromise comes with huge rewards. We have to concede here that Jiro is an exception to the passion rule; after all, he doesn’t even take holidays. How much you’re willing to compromise is entirely subjective, but the message is the same. To succeed is to understand that you’re dedicating a portion of your life to mastering a skill set.
Whether definitive or lucid in nature, those skills will continue to define your professional career. And once you reach a certain level, they’ll start to impact your personal life in a positive way too. Don’t be scared of blurring these lines. Those who say you should always keep them separate do so with good reason, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Become passionate. Become obsessive. Become the master of your skills. But stay healthy.
As Jiro would say, “improve with joy”.