The Need for Standardized Work When Ordering Whiskey


Ah, whiskey. I like whiskey. I'm not afraid to say that. I've blogged about whiskey (or whisky) once before: Why Kaizen is an Important Differentiator for Japanese Whisky. I also have a personal Kaizen story that I need to write about from my day volunteering at a Texas bourbon distillery.

On a recent flight, I was reminded of the need to follow standardized work, even in the context of something as simple as ordering a drink.

A passenger seated across from me (yes, it was another passenger, not me), responded to the flight attendant asking him if he wanted a drink.

He asked for a specific drink and was given something that looked like this:

That's whisky with ice in it.

The flight attendant set it on his tray and the passenger said, “No, I asked for whisky, no ice.”

She said (and her tone wasn't as snippy as it might have been), “Oh, I thought you said whisky with ice.”

She proceeded to take the drink away, since it's not proper form to fish out the ice cubes at that point. I presume she was going to pour out the whisky, which seems like a waste of perfectly mediocre blended Scotch.

I wanted to react like this to the waste:

I guess I could have intervened and drank it, but it seemed awkward to speak up to do so (I think she had already brought me a drink).

She came back with a fresh glass of whisky, no ice.

What's the moral of the story?

When we don't follow the standardized work for ordering, Scotch gets wasted.

There's a clearer way to order that's far less likely to be confused.

Whisky with ice = “Whisky on the rocks.”

Whisky without ice = “Whisky neat.”

If he had ordered that way, it would have been far less likely that the flight attendant would have brought the wrong beverage. Simple as that.

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If you're going to partake in a whisky this weekend, keep this mind (I hope thinking about Lean doesn't ruin your fun… and that thinking about Lean doesn't drive you to drink). There's a reason for following standardized work… to reduce confusion and to reduce errors.

And to reduce the amount of Scotch that gets wasted.

What are some similar situations in the workplace? When does verbal communication lead to problems and errors? What can we do to ensure clear, unambiguous communication?

Think of Steve Spear and his “Four Rules in Use” from the classic HBR article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.”

Rule #2 says:

“every connection in the process must be direct and binary (yes/no responses).”

On that flight, there wasn't a direct and binary connection between the passenger and the flight attendant.

What happens when the stakes are higher, such as in a factory or a hospital?

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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. It seems to be implied in this case that the customer should bear the responsibility to ensure that the order was understood (follow standardized work). Where’s the supplier’s responsibility to ensure no defect is passed forward?

    The flight attendant may need only to check-back or clarify with a simple question (e.g. “that was whisky with NO ice?”) or better yet, teach the customer improved methods of ordering (“did you mean whisky on the rocks or neat?”). The supplier bears the brunt of the waste in this case – shouldn’t they at least perform a check at the moment of ordering or offer the customer a better process?

    I often hear this in working in industry (“if only the customer did what we want them to……”). I find that this rarely leads to improvement where I work. Thoughts?

    • Good point. We shouldn’t blame the customer for not knowing.

      When a verbal order is given, on a plane or in healthcare, it’s good practice to repeat it back, right?

      You’re right, I’d ultimately blame American Airlines for the wasted whisky.

      I’m reminded of the first time I ordered a mixed drink at a bar with a group of friends. The guy before me ordered a drink and had some change (50 cents?) left on the bar. I was clueless and didn’t think that was tip money, so I went to grab it for my friend. “That’s my tip!!!” yelled the bartender with a death stare.

      I didn’t know any better. But, now I did. Lesson learned.


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