Case Study 

Solutions in practice 

By Cassandra Johnson

David Meier, the owner of Glenns Creek Distilling, sits on one of the oak barrels used to age bourbon.Helping the whiskey flow, Toyota style

David Meier is using Toyota Production System principles to make whiskey flow through a 19th century distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Meier started work at Toyota in the 1980s and later became a traveling consultant. During his travels, he began thinking about establishing his own manufacturing-centered business closer to home. After researching his options, he came upon the original Old Crow Distillery that had been shut down since 1985. The 16-acre property had not been maintained since it closed, and Meier purchased the place in 2014.

For Meier, the Toyota Production System (TPS) and distilling bourbon whiskey have problem-solving and ingenuity in common. When he bought the distillery, Meier had a huge restoration project, a shoestring budget, three employees and the occasional intern. Meier and his team first restored one of the main buildings for the distillery. The team designed and built nearly all equipment used for the mash, fermentation and distillation process, and Glenns Creek Distilling was running by May 2015.

In that time, the team built a small pot still they named "Tiny Tim" to get the fundamental design for the distillery in place and experiment with different recipes. Meier and his crew then built a mediumsized still they called "Double D," because it has two doublers in a series. A doubler is a tank that allows the vapor from the still to condense and then revaporize and pass through. The process increases the ethanol percentage and leaves undesirable flavors behind.

Eventually the distillery built two larger stills. "Rumsfield" is used for making rum, and "Dr. Crow" is a bourbon still named after Dr. James Crow, who standardized the sour mash process used in bourbon production today. The company released its first product in January 2016, a triple-oaked bourbon whiskey named OCD #5.

This main building of Glenns Creek Distilling is shown before its renovation.Although lean usually is about efficiency, Meier chose the less efficient pot still. He said the pot still method produces a better quality product than a column still.

"My philosophy here is to replicate something that Dr. James Crow would've produced in the early 1800s, and that was prior to (the more advanced) stills that are used today," he added.

When it comes to applying modern manufacturing methods from Toyota to the age-old process of making bourbon, Meier said he and his team use the TPS system to make processes – and whiskey – flow while not detracting from the quality of the product.

"When I was at Toyota all the Japanese guys would say, all we do is problem-solve," he said.

For example, Meier's team has developed kanbans to help move the distilling process along. The distillery uses a status board to indicate when a still is filled and ready to run. As the company's volumes pick up, the team will put more kanbans in place for bottling, labels and other processes.

The distillery started operating in 2015 after a slew of renovations.Another problem involved overflow from water cooling tanks used in the cooking process. Team members created a valve mechanism based on the concept of the toilet. When the water reaches a certain level, the valve shuts off automatically. The team also added an air-proofing alarm system to the stills to prevent incidents where the cooked mash boils over and wastes product. The team built an alarm that detects when the temperature rises to a certain degree and alerts the worker to make an adjustment, so nothing spills.

He explained that with Glenns Creek Distilling, the flow is unlike that of a factory. Factories have more of a production flow, while in distilleries the flow goes from process to process, making it a challenge for his team to maintain a balance.

"Part of the challenge in lean thinking is we're still in a startup, growth mode (and every time) we get the process figured out and running we need to change part of it so we can (move on to the next phase)," Meier said.

The distillery interior includes large stills, Dr. Crow and Rumsfield, which
produce bourbon whiskey and rum."I think there is a lot of misconception about Toyota and lean. Toyota is a pretty basic company and they … keep things simple and rely on the creativity of the people," he said. Recalling his time at Toyota, Meier explained that workers at the automotive giant would follow simple kaizen rules: Can you do it with what you have available? And what can you do today at no cost or low cost?

"When you look at that mindset, you realize it's not about the savings. It's about the use of people, their creativity and directing that in a way that (pushes) them to think harder," he said.

Meier is still working on the first two stages of a three-part business plan. The first is production and making bourbon. Glenns Creek currently makes rye bourbon, whiskey and rum and is working on a sugar cane-based bourbon. The second stage is preserving the existing structure from the forces of nature, and the third is a full restoration of all buildings, expanding the distillery and looking for investors to create restaurants and other amenities on the property.

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