Tokyo Disney Resort is Lean

Next week I’m going on a "Lean Study Tour" together with a few consultants from BestBrains, some colleagues from Crisp, Tom and Mary Poppendieck, and some other lean enthusiasts. We’re going to visit Toyota and some other interesting companies.

A couple of weeks earlier I was at QCon Beijing and QCon Tokyo, so I’ve had a week of vacation in between. I’ve spent a few of those days with my family at Tokyo Disney Resort (= Disneyland + Disney Sea), really fun! In fact, Disney Sea in particular is now on my PlacesYouMustVisitBeforeYouDieOrYourLifeHasBeenInVain list, together with Rome and the Grand Canyon.

Disney Sea

Anyway to the point…

Being an Agile & Lean coach, I can’t help but notice how things are organized – and I’m impressed! Tokyo Disney Resort is Lean!

It’s very clear that they’ve optimized the process towards maximizing customer satisfaction, and that a large part of that is about maximizing the time spent having fun vs the time spent waiting in queues. Here are some examples:

  • Ready-to-go batch. As you near the front of the queue, an attendant will partition out just enough people to fill the ride (I’ll call that the "ready-to-go batch", don’t know what they call it). They ask how big your group is, so that you won’t be divided up. The attendant now has a couple of minutes to organize everyone in the ready-to-go batch, so that everyone is standing in exactly the right place to maximize boarding efficiency. Once the ride arrives and has been cleared, the people in the ready-to-batch are loaded really quickly because everyone knows exactly where they should go, aided by low fences and clear markers in the floor.
  • Takt time and slack. Each ride follows a specific rythm, or takt time. Whenever the ride arrives, the people in the ready-to-go batch at that moment are immediately loaded and the ride departs. It does not wait until all seats are flled. This means there usually are some empty seats – either because the ready-to-go batch didn’t fill up in time due to unevenness in the queue, or because the next people in the queue are a group of 3 which shouldn’t be broken up. Thus there is slack in the system, which not only allows for smooth flow but also makes things like the alternate ride system work (see below). The takt time creates a stable rythm making it easier to adapt the pace and predict the workload for the machines and attendants. If they instead had optimized for resource usage (i.e. filling each ride to 100%) then this would have severely increased the waiting time and queue lengths, a common mistake made in other queuing systems (for example some airlines) that neglect to optimize for customer satisfication.
  • Visible queue waiting times. Each ride has a notice board with current estimated queuing time (for example 10 minutes). There are also central noticeboards showing the queuing times for all attractions. This allows people to self-organize, causing them to naturally gravitate towards attractions with short queues and away from attractions with long queues. This levels out the flow across the whole system, to everyone’s benefit.
  • Separate exits. Each attraction has a clearly marked separate exit, ensuring that people leaving don’t disrupt the the flow of people coming in.
  • Alternate ride system. If a family has kids that are too young for a ride, the parents can ask for an "alternate ride" ticket. When parent #1 has finished the ride, he hands the alternate ride ticket to parent #2, who is then escorted in through a special entrance providing direct access to the ride. This shows that they have optimized the system to minimize the waiting time per attraction per family (rather than just per individual). Systems like this indicate that they really take the time to analyze and optimize for customer satisfaction.
  • Fast track system. All popular rides have a fast track ticket booth near the entrance (but not near enough to disrupt the queue). There you could swipe your disneyland passport and get a "fast track" ticket for that ride tied to a specific timeslot printed on the ticket (for example 10:40 – 11:40). Usually the timeslot is one hour or so in the future (depending on the load). So go do something else in the mean time (anything is more fun than standing in a queue) and come back between 10:40 – 11:40. If you do, you will be able to enter the fast track lane, which has virtually no waiting time at all. This works because the system can limit the number of people per timeslot, thereby balancing the workload and smoothing out the flow. The fast track system allows each guest to make an optimization decision – do I want to enter the attraction as soon as possible (= wait in line now) or with as short wait as possible (= come back later & skip the line).  To maximize the predictability in the system, you can only have one fast track active at a time (thereby increasing the likelihood that each fast track ticket will be used, ie. minimizing waste).
  • Lots of attendants monitoring the bottlenecks. There are lots of attendants around, especially near critical sections of each queue (typically near the front). They carefully monitor the flow in and out of each attraction and act quickly as soon as they spot a bottleneck or even a potential bottleneck. I have two kids (3 yrs and 5 yrs) so inevitably we would sometimes need to stop to fiddle around with something or look for the dropped mickey ears. Every time this happened, an attendant was quick to help us. There was a sense of urgency, but not enough to cause stress. It was clear that customer satisfaction was highest priority, and that monitoring the flow was just seen as a means to that end.
  • Queues are fun (well, at least not totally boring). Although they’ve taken many effective measures to minimize queue times, it is till inevitable that you will spend some time queuing. Especially during high season. So to maximize customer satifaction they’ve tried to make the wait time as pleasant as possible. For example in the Tower of Terror the queue will take you through a really cool haunted mansion with lots of details to gawk at, and even a little pre-show in one of the waiting rooms.
  • Separate workflows in restaurants. At each restaurant there is one queue up to the cash register. As soon as you announce what you want to order, a signal is sent to the kitchen. While you are paying, they are preparing your order. When you have finished paying you receive a ticket, walk up the pick-up counter and present your ticket (essentially a Kanban), and receive your tray of food which in most cases is ready to pick up by the time you get there. Then you take a separate path out to avoid disrupting the flow of people coming in. Time spent waiting or standing still: virtually zero. This is achieved by separating the workflows (paying, picking up food, exiting) and making sure every second is spent adding value (i.e. getting you closer to the end of the value stream, the point when you walk out with your tray of food).

… and more.

Most of these things aren’t really unique or impressive on their own, it is the combination that impresses me. Plus the fact that the lean mindset seems to be a part of the culture, since it is applied at such a detailed level, and since the attendants seem to be acting out of reflex. It seems like every person on the staff knows that customer satisfaction is #1, and understands the mechanics of the system well enough to be able to achieve it.

Here are the 14 lean principles of The Toyota Way:

  1. Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
  2. Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  3. Use "pull" systems to avoid overproduction.
  4. Level out the workload (heijunka). (Work like the tortoise, not the hare).
  5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.
  6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.
  7. Use visual control so no problems are hidden.
  8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.
  9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others
  10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
  12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation (Genchi Genbutsu).
  13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly (nemawashi).
  14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen).

I’ve seen almost all of these principles in action at Tokyo Disney Resort during my fairly short stay, either directly or indirectly. I’m not sure how much of it is intentional, but the system works too well for it to be entirely accidental.

So what’s the downside? Well, the smooth flow and high level of efficiency can sometimes create the feeling that I’m just a cog in a machine, a packet in a network, an envelope in a postal office. Some Kanban teams report the same type of feeling. 

For example I don’t get to choose what seat to take in a roller coaster – I’m assigned a seat as soon as I’m pulled into the ready-to-go batch, and then gently but firmly ushered into the exact right seat when the roller coaster arrives. And when the ride is over I’m quickly escorted out. And sometimes the whole thing feels a bit nit-picky. "Please stand right here, sir" (indicating a circle on the floor that I was just one step away from).

The positive outweighs the negative by far though. I’ve never had such a high "having fun vs waiting in line" ratio at a theme park before :o)

… and it seems like the "Lean Study Tour" part of my trip started earlier than expected :o)

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