Lean in hospitality: challenges and opportunities
INTERVIEW – Juan Pedro Gonzalez is a pioneer of lean in hospitality, having spearheaded the transformation of Spain’s Dreamplace hotels since the beginning. Here, he discusses what role lean can play in advancing the industry.
Interviewee: Juan Pedro Gonzalez, former Head of Operations, Dreamplace
Planet Lean: You were one of the first people to see that the lean methodology could be applied to hospitality. That vision eventually led to the transformation of the Dreamplace hotels. How did it come about?
Juan Pedro Gonzalez: It all started in 2010, at a conference. Lluis Cuatrecasas, founder of Instituto Lean Management, was giving a presentation there. I didn’t know anything about lean, but the thing Lluis talked about immediately resonated with me: productivity, quality, improvement, waste elimination… This is what I was striving to achieve in my daily life at work already! I immediately thought that the methodology was entirely applicable to hotel processes.
Indeed, General Director Marco López and I were already “thinking lean”. We wanted to improve the working lives of staff; we wanted to streamline our processes; more importantly, we wanted to be involved in that improvement, as leaders. After I told him about the presentation, Marco asked me to give lean a try. And I did. I read all the books, familiarized myself with the concepts, and then got to work.
It was the time of the 2009 crisis, and my first steps into lean coincided with a drive to reduce costs in our hotels. The previous year, we had cut costs everywhere we could, but had now reached a point where we couldn’t do that anymore without severely impacting quality and customer experience. There was only one thing to do: improving processes and boosting efficiency. Lean seemed to be the logical way to do that. And indeed, it allowed us to reduce our costs while providing a better service to our guests. As a result, we saved a lot of money thanks to it.
PL: What was your experience developing your lean skillset?
JPG: For me it was easy, to be honest. Lean is just my way of thinking. There was no need to learn the importance of being at the gemba, because I was already at the gemba all the time! In the same way, observation had always been part of my way of working, long even before lean came into the picture. As a hotel’s Ops Director, a focus on guest was an entirely logical thing for me to expect of staff.
So, when the time came to introduce weekly meetings and lean tools, there wasn’t much of an adjustment needed in me. What lean gave me, however, was structure and the tools I needed to realize the idea of hotel I had in my mind. For example, lean helped us to put renewed emphasis on standardization. When I joined Dreamplace in 2002, I created a few manuals detailing procedures for all areas of the hotel, meant to support operations. Fast-forward 12 years and this material, which detailed a very traditional approach to running a hotel, had become obsolete. We were forced to find a way to bring the work back to the process and define procedures that could better help our front-line workers. Lean standards were the answer. In truth, for everything we did, lean gave us a better method.
PL: And in those early years you didn’t hear of any other lean implementation in hotels? Why is that?
JPG: None. Two years after that first conference, another event was organized in Santa Cruz. They told the story of a hotel in Castellón that had done the same we had. But nothing more than that! There is still very little lean work happening in hospitality, and I think this comes down to the culture of the industry.
It’s interesting. If you have a good understanding of how a hotel works, you will immediately see how lean can improve any process in it. The difficulty lies in the environment: in hotels, the Director is often seen like some deity (with no incentive to do things better because they have already reached the highest of positions) and middle managers act like feudal lords protecting their turfs. The attitude in hotels is very much “Don’t come in here and tell me what to do”, making the horizontal organization that lean promotes very hard to create.
It’s too bad. Lean could have a bright future in hospitality, and it could do wonders in terms of reducing costs and improving quality. But it is a huge effort, and I fear few people will be up to the challenge. The culture in the sector has to change first.
PL: Where is hospitality at today and what role can lean play in improving it?
JPG: Except for some technological advances, the sector is still basically the same it was 50 years ago. There is no innovation, even though customer expectations continue to evolve. I believe that Lean Thinking could lead to amazing results in an industry that has hardly changed for decades. It could be the innovation that finally propels it into the future. We have seen its potential at Dreamplace: thanks to it, the organization offers a high-quality product at lower costs compared to larger chains. The methodology has made us competitive in a hyper-competitive market.
But, as I said, such a turnaround is difficult to achieve, particularly for large hotel chains. These organizations will likely need many “chief engineers” to spearhead transformations in their hotels, highly skilled individuals that – with the support of top management – can lead change across the business. It’s very difficult to find or develop that many people simultaneously.
PL: In the light of all this, what suggestions would you give to hotels and hotel chains interested in a lean transformation?
JPG: First of all, the CEO and the hotel director need to be open to changing and committed to supporting the lean effort. Once you have secured their support, you can go down one level and find the most open-minded middle managers. These are typically those who are frustrated with the status quo or the young ones who are eager to prove themselves. Teach them the philosophy and tools, and then start running experiments with them.
If someone is not open to lean, don’t insist and try someone else instead. You can always go back to them at a later stage, when other parts of the business have begun to see results that you can use to prove the value of lean.
Every time you try to expand the scale of your transformation, you’ll have to find early adopters, people who are likely to embrace the philosophy and become ambassadors of it. A tip? Housekeepers typically grasp lean very quickly, and often represent your way in.
I also suggest you go out there and see as many transformations as you can. At Dreamplace, we constantly participated in events and gemba visits at other organizations, from hospitals to bakeries and manufacturing plants. I cannot stress enough how important this way for us: we found that, aside from the inspiration and the learnings, to see others implementing lean reinforced the message with our own people.