Lean and Operational Excellence in the BBQ Pit

by | Nov 15, 2018 | Operations

Over the past couple of years, BBQ cooking has become a hobby for me. I enjoyed watching BBQ Pitmasters on TV and it led to the purchase of a wood smoker to do low-and-slow barbecue. After a lot of experimenting, I’ve developed some decent tried-and-true recipes, but I wanted to learn how to move beyond good barbecue to great barbecue. Imagine my delight when my wife surprised me with an early Christmas gift of a two-day cooking class with world-champion BBQ competitor, Myron Mixon (the ornery judge on the BBQ Pitmaster show). I spent two days at his home in Unadilla, GA, learning his approaches and techniques.

Myron is authentically Southern. His accent is thick, and I think he would be proud if I called him a redneck.  Award-winning BBQ is his life and livelihood. As I sat in his class taking copious notes, I couldn’t help but realize that I wasn’t just getting an education in cooking—I was getting an education in Lean. I doubt that Myron knows anything about Lean, and I certainly didn’t hear a single Japanese word come from him. Yet I watched him practice many of the things that we associate with Lean manufacturing concepts when we strive for operational excellence:

  • Standard Work: He demonstrated a very repeatable process. Everything was well defined, including ingredients, cook times, temperatures, type of wood, and start and stop times (so that everything would finish at the right time).
  • Continuous Improvement: While his standard work was the foundation, he continuously innovated so that his food would win competitions. When he experimented, he would change one variable at a time so that he could test the effectiveness. Once he was satisfied it would become his new standard. I compared one of the recipes from his 2011 recipe book with the recipe that he shared with us at the class and, sure enough, there were subtle differences where he tweaked the recipe.
  • PDCA: He had an excellent PDCA (plan-do-check-adjust) process to make adjustments as needed while preparing the food. We were cooking a pork shoulder that was larger than normal and was taking longer to cook. In order to meet the target completion time, he adjusted the temperature of the smoker by 25 degrees to cook the meat slightly faster. He used his experience and judgment to make slight adjustments to the process in order to adhere to a deadline.
  • Teamwork: Myron was surrounded by a team of six people who had all worked with him for years. Each person knew his role, whether it was stoking the smoker, clearing tables, prepping food or fetching ingredients. In addition to their respective primary roles, they were also cross-trained to cover each other in case anyone was getting overloaded.
  • Training: It was interesting to watch Myron interact with his team. He wasn’t just the boss; he was the master teaching the students. We would be doing a technique—such as injecting a solution into a piece of meat—and he would demonstrate it first. Then he would let the team members repeat it. He’d watch them carefully while providing coaching and guidance. He did the same for the students. Myron was patient but tough.
  • Quick change-over: Over the course of a morning, we prepped and cooked six different types of meats, progressing seamlessly between them. Once the brisket was prepped, Myron’s team swooped in and cleaned the table. Then they brought in the next meat selection with the ingredients and we prepped that. It wasn’t quite a NASCAR pit crew, but it was pretty close.

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Myron and his team didn’t know the terms of Lean, but they knew how to apply it in real life—that’s part of what made them a championship team. Myron has reached the top of his profession and, somehow, he knew intuitively to implement disciplines that we in the manufacturing industry call Lean. There’s a valuable lesson I found in my BBQ experience: operational excellence comes from the daily application of Lean principals, not from the spouting of the jargon.

Now, as Myron said at the close of the training, “That’s it folks.  Now git yo’ ass off my property.”