How small fishes eat bigger sharks

This story starts some years back. Maybe it was serendipity, or just some plain coincidences that I kept hearing about this one masterpiece documentary from a lot of people. People who weren't connected to each other. And all this happened in a span of 10 days. So watching this documentary entered my long list of to-dos. Somehow I didn’t watch it. And for days it kept on lingering.

But I am glad, I finally did! Some days back. 

It turned out to be awesome. Arguably, one of the greatest brand stories that I have heard. While this story is soaked in human truths about mastery, focus and daily routines, it is also the smartest class on running family business and telling your story well.

Mastery is a disH BEST served cold:

Jiro Ono- the man who just cannot do anything else. (A still from the documentary)

Jiro Ono- the man who just cannot do anything else. (A still from the documentary)

This is the story of a master and his craft. It is also a story of one man waging a war on mediocrity through relentless pursuit of perfection. His practice is no less than a meditation on his craft. His workplace- no less than a temple of perfection. And his team-like hopeful disciples of a revered monk.  

In a tiny Sushi bar in Japan, lives the world’s greatest, oldest and the first- 3 Michelin star holding Sushi chef. His name is Jiro Ono. He is a legend in Japan and many consider him as their national treasure. His restaurant is called 'Sukiyabashi Jiro'. The must-watch documentary I was referring to is the critically acclaimed masterpiece Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Watching David Gelb’s- ‘Jiro dreams of Sushi’, is like embarking on a journey of authentic brand storytelling.  

Jiro, a 90 year old chef has been making, arguably, the best Sushis in the world for almost 80 years now. Day in, day out, doing exactly the same thing with a small but significant difference. “It has to be better than last time” proudly says Jiro. He has almost perfected his recipe by spending decades mastering his craft. And he is not finished yet.

No wonder he is considered to be an artist and world’s leading authority on Sushi. Everyone that knows him says he is a perfectionist. Jiro pursues perfection through small incremental repetitive gains. He is not disrupting stuff, but making continuous improvements so that the next bite of Sushi tastes better. Jiro is a living embodiment of the Japanese ‘Kaizen philosophy which means continuous improvement. 

Every element of his restaurant is meticulously placed. There is symmetry in his design philosophy. Everything has a purpose. And his people are the embodiment of the human spirit of excellence and mastery.

People talk about the intensity and stern looks on Jiro’s face when he is serving you his Sushi. In a way that intense focus on his face shows you how important your next bite is for Jiro.

And when you immerse into the feast of the senses, you connect on a spiritual level with him. In the movie they talk about the perfect  ‘Umami’ effect or the ‘aha moment’. 

Even today, Jiro keeps making Sushis. Some of his celebrity fans include names like Barack Obama, Hugh Jackman, Drew Barrymore, Anne Hathaway and many more. 

Jiro Ono serving his masterpiece to US President Barack Obama and Japanese PM Shinzō Abe. Photo courtesy : Pete Souza

Jiro Ono serving his masterpiece to US President Barack Obama and Japanese PM Shinzō Abe. Photo courtesy : Pete Souza

But Jiro knows that it is not one man’s job. So over the years, he has worked hard to build the best team- a tribe of like minded Sushi craftsmen whom he refers to as “shokunin”. He trains them hard. Unsurprisingly, he is the hardest taskmaster  to his sons. True to Japanese tradition, the elder son will pass on his legacy, the younger has opened up his own Sushi bar (designed to be symmetrically opposite to that of Jiro’s. Jiro is left handed, his son right handed)
Jiro’s shokunins are like those young disciples learning to meditate from their Zen Master in the Himalayas knowing fully well that they may never reach that state of nirvana like their Master. And yet they spend years and years immersing in their daily practice. And all this for that one approving nod from their master. 

After all, the master knows when you are ready. 

It takes ten years of relentless practice to become a Shokunin, that is if you have the talent to become one in the first place. But that is just the start.  

Jiro, for 80 odd years of his life, has spent every waking hour of the day practicing the same ritual with ever increasing passion.
Not for one day did he find his job boring.
Not for one day did he ever complain!
Even while he is asleep, he dreams about Sushi.

At 90 years, Jiro still feels he has not reached perfection in his practice. The world disagrees. But Jiro has his own internal benchmarks. He is hard on himself. The world may not even want or be able to judge that perfect Sushi. For Jiro, to be able to serve just that, is the purpose of his life. 

'Jiro Dreams about Sushi' is about the man who just cannot do anything else. Anything else would be like death for this master.

Lessons from Jiro

Apart from important lessons on mastery, the importance of daily rituals and nurturing business relationships, through this documentary we can witness- how a tiny business in one corner of the world run by a 90 year old Japanese could become one of the greatest business stories of recent times.

My key takeaways from this masterpiece documentary from a branding and business storytelling perspective

1) Paradoxes and Beauty in constraints: 

 Sushi-making techniques are well known. There are a lot of Sushi bars sprouting around the world, many backed by larger deep pocketed corporates. There are no coveted secret techniques as such, everything is in public domain. The only differentiation for Jiro is his years of relentless practice and his passion and a team of passionate Shokunins.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny place. And it is not lavish by any luxury restaurant standards. Yet, it has been the most expensive Sushi bar on the planet and one of the most sought after fine dine restaurants in the world.

But guess what. It serves only Sushi, has only 10 seats & no internal restrooms! 

- Average dining time at high end restaurants normally spans between 3-5 hours. 

- Average dining time at Jiro’s sushi bar is 20 minutes. And you will get no appetizers, no drinks! Just Sushi. 

Yet, to be able to experience Jiro’s Sushi, you will have to wait 30 days.

Jiro's Sushi is simple. Yet it is profound with depth of flavors and the effect it leaves behind. A smart brand will leverage these paradoxes and find beauty in constraints.

2) Customer delight? Forget about that. Instead, make them nervous !

We have all heard about the cliched concepts of customer delight and customer service. (A concept that is more spoken about than experienced in real life). 

But not all brands delight. Some make their customers nervous. And that is a good thing. The customer may be the King but even the King learns from a Master.

Jiro has mastered Sushi making. He knows that most people will be overwhelmed and delighted with his Sushi. But he doesn’t rest there. He strives for continuous improvement. Being his own benchmark, he is setting new standards everyday. 

Few brands reach a place where they actually make their customers nervous- not because they feel at risk on consuming a shoddy product or because of lack of trust but because the brand has attained mastery.

The movie talks about how “His customers feel the tension when Jiro is serving them”. This is again reflected when a prominent Japanese food writer, Yamamoto, talks about how he ‘feels nervous’ every time he eats at Jiro’s Sushi bar. And then a young apprentice who talks about how tensed he was while trying out Sushi served by the master. 

While serving Sushi, there is a stern look on Jiro’s face. What you are about to have is not just Sushi, it is one man’s entire life distilled into his magnum opus- now in your hands.
The question is not whether Jiro is good enough to receive your praise.

The question is are you worthy of his masterpiece?

3) The Art of Detailing: 

The phrase ‘God is in the details’ may have very well been crafted watching Jiro going about his daily routine.

To make his masterpiece, Jiro plans out everything in detail. Right from sourcing the best fishes from the right vendors, to applying specially devised techniques and rituals to maintaining the right temperature, the right texture and perfect depth and balance of flavors.

Special attention is given to the art of serving. He even mentally rehearses each dining experience, right from alternating male-female seating arrangements, to gender specific serving guidelines. Jiro even remembers whether the customer is left handed or right handed and will serve on the appropriate side. 

Watching him in action is compared to a symphony where everything comes about beautifully. The ebb and flow, the sequence, it all enhances the overall dining experience. It is an intense and poetic 25 minute performance by a master.

A true brand will pay attention to detail, especially in the back room that the customer never gets to see. 

4) A Passionate Tribe:

Jiro through his passion and relentless pursuit of perfection has attracted similar Shokunins. 
Some end up opening their own Sushi bars having trained under him.

Some become his trusted partner from whom, he sources fish and rice. Like Hiromichi, the rice dealer, who knows everything about rice. He takes pride in selling a particular quality of rice only to Jiro because nobody else can cook it like the master. 

The invisible common thread that holds this tribe together is a hate for mediocrity, love for perfection, and relentless daily practice. Their work has almost meditation like quality.

A brand is always meaningful for a particular tribe. It may mean nothing to the outside world. But the tribe swears by the creed.

5) An Authentic Human Story:

Ironically, even though Jiro has invested his life in pursuit of perfection, as a person he may be far from being perfect.

Jiro is a perfectionist and a workaholic. He seldom takes vacations. He is obsessed with Sushis. His tough childhood may be one of the reasons, he never quits working. Even today at 90. Like any father, he wants the best for his kids. So he trains them hard, being tough on them so that they are capable to carry on his legacy after he is gone. 

Jiro is a highly opinionated person when it comes to his craft. Some may even perceive him as arrogant and fussy. He appears to be an autocratic leader who micromanages. And doesn't seem like a great collaborator. He has set a high standard and it is going to be really difficult for others around him to live upto those standards.

Of course, like all successful brands, he has his share of critics and rumours doing the rounds. Some people perceive his restaurant to be too exclusive, some may perceive it to be over hyped. Some say foreigners who do not speak Japanese are not entertained. Some say they are being sexist by not allowing female chefs. There are stories that they even dare to discipline their customers if they are not dressed well.

The fact remains a true brand cannot be a crowd pleaser. It has to be lopsided and focussed. Perfect and awesome at one thing, terrible at almost everything else. 

A brand is never flawless. And that makes it even more Human.  

 A lesson for all family run businesses

Jiro’s story is a good example of how small family run businesses can compete with bigger rivals through the power of authentic human storytelling

The advantages that a family run business has over its larger, shinier and mightier counterpart is its authentic philosophy, the belief system and its story. The story of its origin, its passion, its culture and its craftsmanship. Most of these businesses have fantastic stories inherent, but have been lost in the annals of history or lost in their confused efforts to compete with giant, sophisticated corporations. Rather than becoming more of themselves, they become ambiguous and lose the authenticity and credibility that they enjoyed over their larger rivals. Some do understand this but are unable to tell their stories.

And there are a few businesses like Jiro's Sukiyabashi that tell beautiful stories. And that's how small fishes eat bigger sharks.

I’ll conclude my thoughts with this profound quote from the movie:

You are consuming Jiro’s philosophy with each bite.”

Makes sense. Only stories and philosophies transcend time. Products don’t. 

Photo Courtesy: Benedicto de Jesus

Photo Courtesy: Benedicto de Jesus