Monday, March 26, 2012

Biographies, Jobs, Apple and Lean


For some reason or other I've been on a bit of a biography kick recently. I read Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood Bones and Butter (great writing, especially in the Blood section), Keith Richards' Life (only read it if you really care about the Stones). I even got to see Harry Belafonte interviewed live by Charlie Rose about his new biography, My Song (don't miss Harry if you ever get the chance). Most recently I closed the cover on Bob Dylan's Chronicles, which has unmatched art and mood.

I also read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. To be honest, even though I read regularly about Apple, I was wary of this book. It came bearing loads of hype, most of it for obvious reasons. There were many book reviews that focused on the personality of Jobs, especially his potent dickishness (spoiler alert! he is often a monumental asshole!). Then there's the story about his first daughter and Joan Baez and his wacky diets and yada yada yada. I feared the dirt would outnumber the diamonds. Any way I cut it, though, Jobs turned out to be a powerful book.

Steve Jobs is not promoted as a business book. I certainly didn't read it expecting to glean anything that could relate to my company. But it is and I did. (That's one of the reasons the book is so powerful—it's really several books and stories combined in one, written masterfully.)

Jobs was quoted many times as saying he wanted to create a great business, not just a great product. There are a number of examples on how he did that but two really struck me, especially as they relate to some Toyota manufacturing's lean concepts.

The first was about visioning. Under Jobs the Apple leadership team had a long term visioning meeting every Monday. Not just once a decade (what we do at Zingerman's for our ZCoB-wide vision), not once a year (as many individual businesses do at Zingerman's), but once a week. In part this was driven by the industry they were in. Technology moves fast so I guess visions should too. But they weren't talking about what was going to happen in six months or a year. This was a vision meeting for the next ten years, talking about what's way on the horizon. The meeting didn't last for a few minutes. Visioning wasn't just an agenda item where someone talked briefly. It was an entire meeting itself. It could go on for hours. They practiced visioning frequently and regularly—by reducing its batch size and interval. And they turned out machines that were many steps ahead of everyone else with fewer problems. I think the two things are very much related.

The second example was about product development iteration. Jobs had a daily check-in on product development. He visited design director Jony Ive and his team every afternoon to see how things had gone since yesterday. During this visit they didn't look at drawings or images on a computer. They held an object. A prototype of the thing they were designing. The group would play with it, talk about it, make tweaks. Then he'd come back the next day.

Now I've been designing for a long time and am fully cocooned in it. I fully appreciate that this may be one of those things where most folks will say, "Yeah, so?" But I'll just say this kind of shit just does not happen elsewhere, anywhere. A design director might see a new prototype once a month. If it's a fast moving project, maybe once a week. But once a day—no way.

Take in the sheer number of iterations. Let's say the iPhone had 3 years of development. Take away vacations and weekends (which I doubt there were many of) and you've still got around 750 design iterations for the iPhone. I doubt if any of Motorola's phones have a quarter that many. That means Apple gave itself at least 4 times as many chances as Motorola to get things right. It wasn't a coincidence that they made a great phone. Yes, they had talented people and Jobs was a stickler for detail (though to some extent I think it's overstated—every designer I know is a stickler for detail; if they weren't they wouldn't be in the business). But forget Ive and Jobs for a moment. They're not the only thing that made such an amazing device. It wasn't a hero product, one that came down from the Creator on the Mountain. It was a sisyphean labor of iterations, albeit one with better results.

In lean terms, they practiced go see — the idea that you have to stand in front of the real thing to understand problems. They also modified it frequently. To put that in lean speak, they reduced the batch size of design by going to daily iterations, not monthly. In doing so they got a better product with fewer errors. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

More signs of the times

More food trucks...and trailers...and buses...from South by Southwest. Pig Vicious—love it! Hat tip to Kristie.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A symbol of...what?

I do not think this word means what you think it means.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Drank No. 13: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, est. 1938, is a house on a corner of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Street residential neighborhood. A bar in a house—oh boy. I was sure it was going to feel like drinking in grandma’s basement. Not so. Bryant’s has so many cool, cheap design tricks—tricks that feel utterly natural—that I felt it some of them were worth sharing.

The first thing you notice: no alcohol. Not a bottle visible. All the booze is in the well or cupboards underneath. The back bar is stocked exclusively with glassware. I counted about 35 different glasses, many specific to a single drink.

There is nothing on the front bar. No coasters, no napkins. It is flat and smooth, uninterrupted. No taps, either. There is no beer (this, in Milwaukee, is probably a statement in and of itself).

There are no drink menus.

It’s almost like you expect no bartenders. But there they are, in white shirts, vests, ties. Ordering is done by discussion, a talk as short or as long as you’d like. They take your order by suggestion, by inference, by your mood. Tell them where you’re from, there’s a drink. Tell them the last piece of poetry you read, there’s a drink. They’re young and they’re not perfect at this brand of palmistry but I appreciate the effort.

Bryant’s makes “serious” cocktails but I also noticed them doing a fair business in fruity pseudo-island drinks which made me happy. So much bartending these days is furrowed brow nonsense. It's refreshing to see umbrellas and big hunks of pineapple and drinks that try to make you laugh instead of squint and nod.

The bar was redecorated after a fire in 1971 and, from what I can tell, nothing has changed. It has wood veneer paneling, leatherette everywhere, wall-to-wall carpeting, patterned wallpaper, drop ceilings, fake flowers. I know this sounds horrible. I have no way of assuring you that it is not. A singular, cohesive vision makes it work somehow. 

They have also made it work through darkness. Dim the lights far enough and it doesn't matter what how big a travesty your wallpaper is. I have no argument with this technique. One of my other favorite joints, the Bronx Bar in Detroit, does the same thing and I've come to appreciate super dark bars. I know they're hiding something, but I don't care. At Bryant's they shutter all the windows, keep the few lights they have on deep dim, light indirectly with burnt caramel orange color bulbs and use a vintage Macintosh tuner as the bar's sole light source. Darkness forgives a lot. I'm sure if you saw the place in daylight you'd run screaming. But in the evening it's so dim they deliver your bill on a tray with its own light so you can read it. It's so dark that a Google search for pictures inside the bar comes up empty. I guess it must be like trying to take a picture at the bottom of the ocean.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Signs of the times


A dumpling food truck, a cupcake food truck and, around the corner, a grilled cheese food truck. Saturday morning outside a teeming Trader Joe's in Brooklyn.

Friday, March 9, 2012

One way to do instructions right.

From the department of small design miracles: I bought a humidifier and the instructions for set-up were on the inside of the box lid. 

I didn't have to hunt for the right page in a manual. The instructions were printed in identically sized picture boxes so it was super easy to understand. In fact there were no almost no words, no multiple languages. The only thing better would be no instructions at all.

Why don't more companies use existing packaging to talk to their customers instead of wasting paper printing more things we throw away?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Drank No. 14: Three small wine trends

Three small trends in wine I’ve noticed recently.

Grower champagne is essentially farmhouse champagne. The grapes are grown on the same land where the wine is made. That may seem like a given, but for champagne it’s never really been the case. Growers grow, champagne houses make, the twain only meet to trade cash. Champagne houses blend to make a house style. They seek consistency. Today, in contrast, growers make a terroir style that can change significantly from year to year. You see these new grower champagnes popping up—sorry—on menus everywhere.

Low alcohol wine is getting some much-needed attention. These wines have an alcohol level closer to 11% versus the 14% you often see (especially with American wines). What’s the advantage? Lower alcohol wines feel lighter on the tongue and, to my mind, go better with food. The alcohol doesn’t cover the flavor. Plus you can drink more! While the difference between 11% and 14% is only 3% by volume, it’s over 25% more alcohol.  For every two glasses of high alcohol wine you could have two and a half glasses of low alcohol wine. That’s bonus magic.

Natural wines seem to be the darling indie band favorites for many wine nerds these days. Natural means a lot of things, there’s no particular definition. But the general idea is that the wines are created with minimal intervention from the winemaker. They’re unfiltered, they’re not chaptalized (when sugar is added to raise the alcohol level, a common practice) and the growers may farm biodynamically. They may be organic but that’s not a given. These wines are quirky animals, prized for how different they are from standard fare, how they contrast to the current “international style” (oaky chardonnays, brassy sauvignon blancs, big cabernets that seem to taste the same whether they're made in South Africa or South Dakota). Some of them are even quite good.