Productivity lessons from a whiskey bottle

I spent last evening working on a whiskey bottling line for a local distillery as a volunteer. Not only did I want to support the establishment but I also wanted to experience that type of a working process and see what I could glean. Three things struck me as we hand filled, capped, and labeled 930 bottles in two hours. 

Little changes can have big impacts 

As the designated bottle capper, I quickly discovered the smallest adjustments to my part of the process could have significant impacts on my workflow and throughput. For example, moving the bottle caps from the box on the floor to the table next to me shortened the distance I had to cover and time I had to expend between bottles.

These kinds of adjustments aren’t perfect though as I soon discovered. The new location lent itself to caps being knocked to the floor causing a distraction with each occurrence. The overall change was positive, but additional adjustments had to be made. 

Don’t feel that you have to put the brakes on everything to make adjustments to your processes. Make evaluations on the fly when possible, determine possible impacts, test and trial when the opportunity is there, and be prepared to make adjustments if your hypothesis was incorrect.  

Mistakes aren’t the end of the world 

During the filling process issues arose that could have caused significant issues to the execution. One of the issues was one of the hoses used to blow air into the empty bottles to clear them of dust kept blowing off its fitting.

Not having secured the hose before bottling began was a mistake that needed correction. For our purposes replacing the hose was enough but if the job was bigger a more permanent fix would have been in order. What is more important is how the mistake was handled than how it occurred. 

Mistakes happen in processes. Unforeseen issue arise. It’s just the nature of the world. Rather than stopping all production and pointing fingers to assign blame, deal with the problem and get back to work.

There will always be time later for analysis, debate, and postmortems. The key for the productive professional is knowing when to stop and knowing when to keep going. 

Each step is a process itself 

In looking at each step in the bottling process (capping doesn’t take much thought so I had some idle mental cycles to put to use) I realized each wasn’t really step but rather a process in and of itself.  

 Watching the person across from me who was responsible to make sure each bottle contained the correct amount of whiskey I counted no less than 12 separate parts to her “step” in the process. If any of those were to go off the rails the entire worksheet would be interrupted.  

For example, late in the process we change to a new pallet of bottles which unbeknownst to anyone we’re slightly thicker than what we had used to that point. That minor change meant the measurements she was using were now off and needed to be calibrated again. Her process hadn’t changed, but it was no longer working correctly. 

Too often we see things as milestones in a line. Proper workstreams need to be viewed as links in a chain, with each link a circular repeating process. Viewed this way you can see how management can often be blind because of the big picture and miss the smaller processes that make all the difference. 

One bottle at a time 

Workstreams and the people executing them need to be understood not only at the high level but lower levels as well. Viewing everything as a finished pallet of bottles causes you to lose the connection to the success that one filled bottle can be.