The last tempura

A restaurant manager gets bored of restaurant work and decides to be a facilities manager for a company in a small town in Japan, leaving a well known business and the country to newer experiences. The Japanese company always hosts a banquet for its executives on every Friday. Tempura is one of the delicacies ordered in large numbers along with other Japanese delicacies. The majority of the food is prepared before in the kitchen and served on the table except tempura and a few other dishes which is prepared in a live counter and left to self serve.

The manager observes at the end of the banquet that there is a shrimp tempura left, instinctively thinks about the cost because of recent shrimp shortages and how much do they have to pay for high quality ones. So the manager orders lesser number of tempuras to be prepared for the next dinner. Surprisingly one tempura remains and the cycle continues until tempura is removed from the menu.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on

This goes on for a few months with the other live counter dishes until the live counter itself is removed because of non usage. The cost savings when seen from an individual’s point of view was big. The proud feeling of being able to prove one’s ability to bring in efficiency was giving a high. At the end of the quarter, the facilities manager gets a notice period from the boss to leave the position as a lot of executives have complained about missing the live counter and poor quality of banquet experience.

No one told the manager anything, but what was progressing as a great cost savings plan ended up costing the job. Why did it happen that way? In the group of people who dined, they have a common agreement that it is rude to take the last piece in a buffet, how hungry you are or how tasty it is, it does not matter. For an outsider it looks like wastage, but for the diners it was part of their communication.

Another angle to this is, feedback does not come directly in many cultures. It will often be hidden or wrapped in euphemisms. In this story, one of the diners would have expressed that they need more tempuras but never picked the one on the plate thereby confusing an outsider with mixed messages. Cross cultural work which is a given for knowledge workers nowadays is full of these problems. One book that is helping me is ‘The Culture Map’. I keep rereading a few chapters before getting exposed to a new culture so that I can be well prepared to understand the style of working. It is not foolproof, but it helps you to be better prepared.

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