Lean Whiskey Episode 35

Episode 35: “We’re tired, but not tired of whiskey. A Gemba walk will pick us up.” 


In Episode 35, Mark is recently back from his Scotland Gemba visit. He isn’t tired from jet lag, or from whiskey, but nevertheless, Mark and Jamie both end up complaining about being tired. Maybe we’re just…old (gasp). We also didn’t plan our color coordination (for those on video).

We focus this episode on going to the Gemba in the making of scotch whisky, from Mark’s recent trip. We talk about what is learned by going to the Gemba, both in general and specific to whisky. You can hear more about peat, malting, distilling, and maturing, including is maturing inventory or a value-adding step? 

Of course, we also select scotch as our whisky of choice, opting for more obscure selections that you may not have heard of. Both were excellent. 

We also spend a little time talking about work retreats, whether it be for writing a book as both Mark and Jamie do, strategic thinking as Bill Gates would do, or just simply reflection and planning. We conclude by discussing what job at a distiller we would most like to do, although neither of us likely has the requisite skills. Slainte!


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How To Do an Effective Personal Work Retreat

No matter what your profession, everyone should consider at some point in time a personal work retreat. For me, it is usually about research and writing. Certainly, almost all of People Solve Problems was written across multiple retreats up to the mountains. Bill Gates would take his “think weeks” away in a cabin to read and work on strategic decisions. The purpose of your retreat could be research, writing, strategic work, or could be as simple as career planning or personal reflection. You certainly shouldn’t wait for your employer to provide this opportunity for you. This is you taking the time to do deep work, whatever that means to you.

My friend Lehigh Professor Josh Ehrig was recently preparing for his retreat and asked for my advice. After providing it, he suggested I write it up and post it, so here we go…

First, you must break from established rhythms and routines, and second, you must engage in deeper thinking patterns. 

To break from established rhythms and routines, you should be changing as much as possible. The location is the first thing. It could be as simple as a day in a park with a notebook but could be a cabin or cottage (a choice both for myself and Gates), a hotel, or something else. While this will sound like a strange example, I actually wrote most of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean (long ago) in a Starbucks on long afternoons, and the reason was that it was not busy and they didn’t have wifi, so I couldn’t get stuck in on emails or distracted by lots of traffic. 

From there, change other aspects of your personal routines. It could be waking up a couple of hours earlier or later than you normally do. If you work out in the morning, instead wake up and get right to work and work out mid-day. Eat different foods, drink less coffee and more tea, or less wine and more whiskey, or wear sweatpants and a cozy sweater (well, the right time of year). The whole point is to change your rhythm, perspective, energy, and focus. These disruptions will inherently make you more aware. 

The second aspect is to force yourself past your normal levels of depth and focus to engage in deeper thinking patterns. I wouldn’t normally think I would write for four hours, but I found that the best flow in work would always come after I’ve gone past a bit of a breaking point but keep with it. 

I would also spend more time looking at or thinking about a problem. This could involve reading more and following trails of footnotes into old texts, or loads and loads of building mindmaps to get ideas out and explore connections between key points, or even taking a question and going for a long hike just to think about it more. The objective is to think past what you already know that you know. Pushing those boundaries is where new ideas, connections, and creativity come into play. 

So that’s the general advice. In part to share, and in part to make myself more aware of how I’m doing this, this is some of what I do on my deep retreats. You probably don’t need these details, and certainly shouldn’t just copy them, but here they are. I’d always wake up without an alarm clock whenever that would be, and would stay up later at night. I’d often start with making a stovetop espresso on a Moka pot, sit outside even if it’s cold, and do some reading. I’d get some work done then right away before taking a break for a hike, swim, or even yoga. I’d often have a little wine at lunch, and a little whiskey in the evening. I would probably snack more than I should, although I don’t think that’s helpful but likely a result of using all of my brain on my work and none of it on making good dietary decisions. I would sit and work outside as much as possible. I would keep my work area quite clear, except for a pad of engineering paper, my laptop, and any books I’m reading including a Kindle. In the winter I’d wear sweatpants and a heavy, professorial, knit cardigan, and in the summer would be shorts and Hawaiian shirts. And most importantly, I would clear my schedule. No meetings, email on auto-reply as if I’m on vacation, and no calls either. 

What are your best practices? 

Lean Whiskey Episode 34

Episode 34: “Crazy Ideas, From Shipping Flowers to Crab Whiskey”

In Episode 34, Mark Graban and Jamie Flinchbaugh begin by belatedly celebrating the 3rd birthday of Lean Whiskey. No, this wasn’t a pandemic-launched podcast, although if we hadn’t started it yet it probably would have become one. We also learn of Mark’s pending trip to Islay, where an awful lot of good whisky is produced. Apparently, Jamie wasn’t invited to record an “on location” episode.

Most of the episode we explore the challenges, benefits, and approaches to developing and seeing through the crazy ideas. This conversation builds from an episode of Mark’s My Favorite Mistake podcast in which he interviews 1-800-FLOWERS founder Jim McCann. FedEx founder Fred Smith told McCann that shipping flowers via FedEx wouldn’t work. Not only did Jim not fold in the face of Fred’s advice, he eventually partnered with FedEx to bring this program to life. But bringing big ideas to life is about more than just ignoring the doubters, but adjusting or trimming the idea, learning through rapid testing, and having the courage to move forward through adversity as our explanation of the Netflix story examines. 

We wrap up exploring another crazy idea, whiskey made from crabs. Well, that’s not technically true, but it is distilled crab stock added to a bourbon base, and specifically to raise awareness about the invasive green crabs that destroy the mussel population. Tamworth Distilling from New Hampshire are the brains behind this particular project. Thanks to our friend Dan Markovitz introduced us to this idea. Maybe Mark will detour his trip to Scotland towards New Hampshire instead.  


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The Important Gap Between Observation and Perception

Whether in problem-solving, or broad lean behaviors, or seeing the customer as an entrepreneur, there is much articulated about the idea of going to see for yourself. There are many terms for it, such as “direct observation” that we articulated in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, or Gemba commonly used by the lean community, or just “go and see.” But this principle and practice is about much more than going to see. It is about what and how you see.

In the 1992 movie White Men Can’t Jump, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson get into an argument about Jimi Hendrix in this scene (warning: foul language). Wesley’s character is trying to explain to Woody’s character that there is a difference between “listening to” Jimi Hendrix and “hearing” Jimi.


Now if you think I can’t swivel from that movie to Ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, think again…

In the book The Daily Stoic, the entry for April 10th is called “Judgements Cause Disturbance”, and while after a different outcome, does help illustrate this concept. 


“It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.” – Epictetus in Enchiridion. The samurai swordsman Musashi made a distinction between our “perceiving eye” and our “observing eye.” The observing eye sees what is. The perceiving eye sees what things supposedly mean. Which one do you think causes us the most anguish? An event is inanimate. It’s objective. It simply is what it is. That’s what our observing eye sees. This will ruin me. How could this have happened? Ugh! It’s so-and-so’s fault. That’s our perceiving eye at work. Bringing disturbance with it and then blaming it on the event. 


Now Epictetus’ point is more to focus on not letting the perceiving eye bother you when there is nothing truly of concern from the observing eye. However, both eyes are of value.

The perceiving eye is where insight comes from. It is where we make meaning from what we see. It’s where we study, and our mind interacts with what we see. We might draw from intuition, experience, reasoning, or more. 

The observing eye sees things for what they are. There is little insight or meaning, but just truth.

The effective observer is (1) very aware of both the observing eye and the perceiving eye, and (2) very much in control of which one is shaping decisions and actions. This is not about one being good and one being bad. We need to see things as they really are. We also need to create meaning from what we see. 

A flamingo is pink, tall, and tropical. That is observation, but perception is about meaning and a flamingo is either a beautiful bird or an ugly one. Both can be right because it’s s a matter of perception. I want to state as fact that fake flamingo lawn ornaments are just ugly, but yet because of their mere existence, certainly some perceive them differently. 

Finally, to offer one more philosopher’s view from long, long ago. Obi-Wan Kenobi says that “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” 


So, develop your pure, unfiltered observing eye. Also develop your insightful perceiving eye. Both will be needed.


Overdesign, Overprocessing, and Overly-Complex

It’s too complicated. I don’t understand. It doesn’t work. It’s not for me. 

Whether launching a new product, or a new company initiative, these might be phrases that you’ve heard. It stems from overdesigning the solution. It shows up as the waste of over-processing, doing more than your customer requires or needs. It results in over-complexity. And it’s far easier to slip into than we believe.

I have numerous momentos in my office. Some are just for the memories, but others are reminders. One of those was from my college days as an engineering student. The large grey block is a mold for packaging of decorative lightbulbs. My engineering professor, one of the few I had to put pragmatism over-optimization, developed a grading rubric that was truly balanced. It covered the ability to protect the bulbs from a specific bulb height, the processing labor and equipment time to make the packaging, the amount of material used (both surface area and thickness), and package efficiency in terms of how many you could ship in a case. At the end of the design process, there was still a max drop test, just for fun, to see who could survive the highest. Someone else won that false prize, but that was not the grading objective or the design objective.

I keep that mold to remind me that just because something might be cool to achieve just to see if you can, or hyper-focus on a single objective, at the expense of the true objective. It is a reminder not to overdesign. 

You might think that in the spirit of self-interest we wouldn’t be so vulnerable to committing resources, time, energy, and our precious attention span. There are lots of reasons such as a simple lack of understanding of the customer’s needs. But a more elusive one is a fear of failure, a fear of not being enough, a fear of being rejected. And that drives overdesign, overprocessing, and overreaching. 

The examples can be as simple as a 3 paragraph email when a single sentence would do, to a program with 47 customized options that means to be something for everyone, but no one can understand it and can go so much further. 

One of the more challenging concerns of overdesign and overprocessing is that you’ll never see it. Sometimes customers simply can’t articulate their needs, and sometimes they’re happy to get more than they asked for, and sometimes they just assume you didn’t care enough to ask in the first place so you certainly don’t care to hear their feedback now. 

Be aware and fearful of overdesign. It can become systematized and costly. 


Creativity, Problem Breakdown, and Problems Such As Eliminating Approvals

There are many problems where we struggle with things such as creativity and breaking down the problem. One such problem that is frequently voiced is the elimination of bureaucracy. You cannot just eliminate bureaucracy. What can you do? You can break down the problem, understand the elements and contributing factors. You can also leverage creativity by looking at more than one solution. One example is the dreaded approvals that cost you delays at the least and rework loops at the worst. In this video, we look at how to overcome the problems created through approvals through the lens of creativity and problem breakdown.


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Hoping To Have a Good Day? A Good Week? Year? Career?

How you start does matter, because it sets up momentum and other psychological factors to carry that momentum forward, as is also true in the reverse where a bad start can sabotage your remaining efforts.

Years ago, The Onion showed a light on this fact with this hilarious story that feels all too true. 

Admitting that he was unlikely to accomplish anything despite giving his best effort, local claims adjuster David Furman told reporters Thursday that he had effectively chalked up the day as a loss by 10:15 this morning. “I took a decent crack at it, but ultimately I’m gonna have to write today off,” said Furman, who reportedly started losing hope for the day approximately 45 minutes after arriving at work. “I did all I could to get some momentum going, but after 15 minutes of answering emails at my desk I just knew this day was beyond salvaging. Oh, well, there’s always tomorrow. I’ve done all I can.” Furman confirmed that he wasn’t overly discouraged, however, as he had already chalked up the entire week as a loss by Tuesday afternoon.

It’s important to recognize that this is dramatically more true the shorter the time horizon. Get a bad start in the 100-yard dash and you are done. Get a bad start in a marathon and there is plenty of time to make it up. Drag race versus 24-hour endurance race, game versus season, date versus relationship, single meeting versus new team, day versus career…bad starts matter in short durations. 

Pay extra attention to how you start, such as the start of the meeting or the start of your day. I’ve focused more on taking waste out of my start to the day, which I recorded this video about. That is more about taking waste out of my day’s start, which certainly helps, but is not the same thing as structuring your day to start on the right foundation. To be honest, I need to do better on that front. I’ve been thinking about that lately, and when I saw the above satirical piece from The Onion from my memories, I decided I would move from the “pondering” phase to the true problem-solving phase. I won’t get into my own analysis or solutions, as this is more about each of us working on the problem for ourselves and our own situation than about copying solutions. However, I will emphasize that this is the type of problem that we often admire without the resolve to do something, waiting for the magical solution to appear. It doesn’t work that way. Work on the problem, and experiment with the solution.  

WHO Should Own Change or Transformation?

Who should lead the next change your organization faces? Who should lead a transformation? A lot depends on the nature of the change. On one end, you have deterministic, programmatic, and tool- or technology-centric changes. On the other end of the spectrum, you have leading change into a VUCA world, a stochastic change, an organic journey, or a people-centric transformation such as culture or capability. This video intends to point you towards who should be leading depending on the type of transformation you’re thinking about.




Happy Heuristics Podcast Episode #8

Happy Heuristics is a podcast about using rules of thumb, decision criteria, or heuristics to help leaders operate with speed and effectiveness in a complex and uncertain world. Podcast partners Jamie Flinchbaugh and Jeff Grimshaw explore specific heuristics, one theme at a time, that you can either adopt or use to shape your own version. Through this podcast, we hope to help cultivate shock-resistant leader routines and rules of thumb for a complex world. Join us for Episode #8



Read the transcript here: 



Lean Whiskey Episode 33

Episode 33: “Back to Normal, and New Firsts” 

In Episode 33, we recognize some of the back to normal which includes Mark heading out on the road to do consulting again. That brings Mark close enough to Jamie for a new first: an in-person recording of Lean Whiskey. Mark Graban and Jamie Flinchbaugh meet up in Philadelphia to drink some Garrison Brothers’ special barrel selection from Mark as well as talk about Lean 101 training.

In many ways, this is the origin story for Lean Whiskey. Mark and Jamie would be opportunistic about their travels, end up in the same city, and find a good whiskey bar, and talk shop. “We should record this” became almost a joke, until it became reality and Lean Whiskey was born. Now, 33 episodes in, we return to an in-person visit. 

Philadelphia becomes our destination, and after recording Mark and Jamie get to go sample some of the great food the city has to offer. We also get to share a bottle (ok, not the whole bottle, but the same bottle), compare hotel glasses to tasting glasses, and set up a different recording approach which unfortunately resulted in there being no video. However, the discussion was as rich as ever so give Episode 33 a listen. 


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