Gemba Wine: Variation in Wine Seals and Variation in Customer Needs


My wife and I just got back from four days in Napa and Sonoma counties doing, ahem, “gemba walks” at a number of wineries, both large and small.

As tourists, we like doing winery visits where you get to walk the process, from grapes on the vine, through production, and into the glass. I tweeted a few pictures and notes under the #gembawine hashtag.

I'll write a more comprehensive post about some things we saw that reminded us of Lean principles, but here's one picture, below, as a start (from a tasting room).

People in process improvement circles sometimes wax rhapsodic about driving all variation out of a system (or somehow creating standardized products or services that are 100% identical – not the goal of Lean, at all).

It might sound like sacrilege, but not all variation is bad.  The picture shows an example where the wax seals on bottles show a charming amount of variation from their hand dipping process…


From a customer perspective, the wax on YOUR bottle (or bottles) doesn't really have to be the same as the others. The variation helps ensure the appearance that there's some handicraft involved, which might be valued by some customers.

You might ask about the functional purpose of the wax – it's primarily decorative. The cork (under the wax) is what seals the bottle, but some argue the wax helps keep the cork from drying out. Or, perhaps it's just cheaper than the usual foil seal around a bottle top when producing at low volumes.

To some customers, the wax seal might be “value” (it looks cool). But, to others, it might be an annoyance (it's harder to cut off than foil?).

While you might be able to reduce the variation in your process, that's easier than reducing the variation in your customers' wants and needs! I'd argue smart companies are able to respond to varying customer needs to a degree that makes sense for the long-term good of the organization. Lean and the Toyota Production System, through “quick changeover” methods allow a company to produce smaller lots and GREATER variety, not just bigger batches that supposedly bring costs down.

Update from 2018: Here is an example from the Garrison Brothers Distillery in Texas. They emphasize the craft nature of their product and bottles are dipped in wax by volunteers who work two-day stints (and their wax seals have a helpful leather pull tag that helps get through the wax so you can open the bottle:

Some might call the bottle on the right a “defect” since the wax isn't as even or as consistent as the bottle on the left. But, it's probably “on brand” for a small producer to have bottles that aren't completely identical. Maker's Mark whiskey does the same thing with their bottles. The variation is part of their signature look.

Not all variation is bad… it depends on the context and the effect it has on the customer.

By the way, I've blogged about the wax dipping process at Garrison Brothers before:

Kaizen in the Garrison Brothers Bourbon Bottle Dipping Process

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Those of you with WSJ access can read an article about French bread makers realizing the customer is right.

    Dominique Anract, a baker in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, sells about 1,500 baguettes every day, and most of them he wouldn’t want to eat himself.

    The vast majority of his customers, he says, choose the whitest, least-baked baguette on display. So he and his team take 90% of the loaves out of the oven before they are done.

    “If those were for me, we’d keep them all in two to three minutes longer,” he says. “But that’s not my call-it’s the customer’s.”

    The baker can produce a variety of product (for different customer preferences) rather than 100% identical baguettes that are variation free.

  2. A comment posted on linkedin:

    A quick changeover specialist might suggest a twist-off top. No tools needed. No nasty bits of wax, cork, or foil in the bottle after uncorking, and it reduces internal steps – allowing more drinking time. Also easier to store if any left :)

    My response:

    More wineries are using the screw caps and there’s less stigma about that, as some expensive wines now use the screw caps instead of corks. Arguably, the quality of the bottle seal is better with a screw cap… it’s just not very traditional. A screw cap is easier to reseal than a cork, but you still have to worry about leftover wine oxidizing and going bad, so I use one of these with any type of bottle.


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