Preventing Errors in Food Delivery by Natural Mapping at Benihana

Restaurant waiters who deliver food to tables of five or more customers rarely remember who ordered what, and have to ask.

Generic restaurant order form

Generic restaurant order form

Most restaurants still use paper order forms, and the most common are not much help, because they tell the waiter what was ordered at each table, but not which customer ordered it. The row of titles on the top, with “APPT- SOUP/SAL-…” is intended as a series of column headers to record each customer’s choice in each category.



Order form with table layouts and numbered positionsSome form suppliers, like National Checking with their WaitRpad, have addressed this problem by providing table maps at the top of the form. These sketches include the following:

  1. The shape of the table.
  2. Where the waiter is to stand when delivering food.
  3. A clockwise numbered position for each customer.

The waiter arrives with a tray carrying the dishes laid out clockwise to match the customer positions.  National Checking posted the following video to highlight the advantages of this form:

Benihana table

Benihana table

Benihana, however, goes one step further and takes advantage of the special characteristics of their service. It is a chain of Japanese restaurants in the US, with a single 8-seat table layout and a chef at each table cooking on a hot plate in front of the customers, from ingredients in a cart. The work done away from the table is limited to kitting the ingredients to match the customers’ orders.



Benihana order form

Benihana order form

The order form is a map of the table, which is possible only because the tables are all identical, and the form can be filled out with abbreviations because the orders are all for full-course meals: “DIA” for “Diablo,” “SM” for “Splash-and-Meadow,” etc., with a few options, such as fried rice versus steamed rice.

While this is effective at ensuring that customers receive exactly what they ordered, it is not mistake-proofing/poka-yoke. It does not physically prevent mistakes, nor does it have a mechanism to signal any error that may happen. A disorganized chef could still get it wrong, and customers could confuse any chef by switching seats.

It is instead an application of the usability engineering principle of natural mapping. An order form that is a map of the table makes it easy for the chef to know which dishes to give to which customers and thereby reduces the likelihood of errors. Mistake-proofing would be better, if someone could find a way to do it.

2 comments on “Preventing Errors in Food Delivery by Natural Mapping at Benihana

  1. About 6 years ago, at the Toyota Museum Cafeteria in Toyota City, I’ve observed that chairs had very small stickers in different colours. I’ve asked the waiter about the purpose of it and she said me that this was a very simple way to know what had been ordered by which customer aroun the table. This way, no need of a table map.

  2. If one thinks preventing errors in food delivery at Benihana restaurant is quite a feat, one should ALSO consider the following about the work of the Dabbawalas in Mumbai, India for a FAR more complex food delivery system.

    As per Forbes:

    “The business model is simple. Dabbawalas collect freshly cooked meals in boxes from the homes of Mumbai residents and deliver them to the workplace for a (very) modest monthly fee (Dabbawala means “one who carries a box” in Marathi).

    What is not so simple is the delivery process. 5,000 Dabbawalas deliver 200,000 boxes per day using only bicycles and various modes of public transportation. Their supply chain is made up of a complex series of collection zones, sorting points, and delivery zones, supported only by an elaborate manual coding system. The codes are made up of only numbers and colors because 50% of the employees are illiterate.

    The only modern technology used in the process is are a website and a text message receiving system which allow customers to request deliveries in real time. Forbes Magazine awarded its Six Sigma certification in 2001 to the Dabbawalas based on a 99.999999 percent delivery accuracy rate (1 error for every 16 million transactions).”

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