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Ari Weinzweig

Episode 3: Implementing a Visioning Process in Your Business, with Ari Weinzweig

Ari Weinzweig is CEO and co-founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, which includes Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Creamery, Catering, Mail Order, ZingTrain, Coffee Company, Roadhouse, Candy Manufactory and the newest business—Cornman Farms.  Zingerman’s produces and sells all sorts of full flavored, traditional foods in its home of Ann Arbor, Michigan to the tune of $60,000,000 a year in annual sales.  Ari was recognized as one of the “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America” by the 2006 James Beard Foundation and has awarded a Bon Appetit Lifetime Achievement Award among many recognitions. Ari is the author of a number of articles and books, including “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon” (Zingerman’s Press), “Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service,” “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating” (Houghton Mifflin), “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business,” and “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader.” “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3; A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves,” was released in December of 2013. “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4; A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business” is scheduled for release in 2016.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How Ari lucked into a great career of entrepreneurship and what his journey has looked like
  • Ari’s visioning process and how he teaches others to be visionaries
  • What Zingerman’s vision looks like
  • Embedding emotion and goals inside the vision
  • Who to include in the creation of different visions
  • The research the core of this vision system came from
  • How Zingerman’s initially implemented a visioning process and how it has evolved since then
  • The seminar where Ari teaches his visioning process
  • Where the strategic planning aspect fits into the system

Ways to contact Ari:

Welcome to System Execution, the strategy and system behind today’s successful companies. Systems can make or break your company, but here we’ll solve your physical, technological, and psychological systems issues by connecting you with experts that have succeeding in overcoming those challenges in their own business, and providing you the guidelines and tools you need to implement those same strategies for immediate results. Now, here’s your host Vera Fischer.

Vera: Welcome to System Execution, a podcast devoted to using processes and systems to drive to a better outcome for your business. I’m Vera Fischer your host. All businesses, no matter the size, relies on systems. Some of these are physical systems such as a factory, some are technological like project management software, while others are psychological systems such as checklist and organizational charts. Many of these systems will overlap in your business. Today’s guest Ari, from Zingerman’s will be discussing a system that has contributed to his success. Ari, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ari: I’d be happy to, good morning or good day to you. Zingerman’s is in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is home of University of Michigan. We’re about an hour west of Detroit and about four hours east of Chicago, just to place us geographically for people. I came to Ann Arbor from Chicago actually to go to school at U of M. I studied Russian history with a particular focus on Anarchists which I also could go on at length about but we’ll leave that for a different interview.

After I graduated from Michigan with my history degree there isn’t a whole lot one can do with a history degree, so I was really kind of unsure of what to do next. I think you and I are going to talk some about visioning today, but when I graduated I really had no vision. What I had was actually the opposite of that, it’s what David Whyte W-H-Y-T-E, the writer and poet calls the via negativa. That’s where you have no clue where you want to go but you’re really clear on where you do not what to go, and I knew I did not want to go home. In order to make that viable I decided I would stay here and in order to make staying in Ann Arbor viable I needed a job.

I had driven a cab part-time while I was in school which was not wholly exciting, and so I decided I would go try to work where one of my college roommates was working, he was a waiter at a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. I went in there and applied for a job as a server, they told me they didn’t need anybody right off but would call me. I waited two weeks, they didn’t call me. I went back and offered to bus tables, they said they’d call me, I waited two more weeks. They still hadn’t called me and I went back and said I’ll do anything, do you have anything at all and they asked if I wanted to wash dishes. Never having worked in food I didn’t know that wasn’t a great idea so I just said sure, I’ll be glad to wash dishes and they had me start that night. That’s really how I got into food and into business.

I totally just lucked out. I would love to tell you that from the time I was five or six that I loved food and cooking and my mother was this amazing cook, and I knew from the time I was 10 that I’d always dreamed of opening my own restaurant, but none of that is true at all. I grew up on a textbook mid 20th century industrial diet of Pop Tarts, Captain Crunch, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, American Singles, and all those delicious things, and I really in hindsight, my newest book is going to be on the power of beliefs in business, and in hindsight I could see I had pretty negative beliefs about business. My beliefs were mostly that business did bad things to people and I didn’t have a whole lot of interesting in being part of one but I needed a job.

I really just got lucky because I stumbled into work that I really love. I came to love food and cooking pretty quickly and love the food business, and then also into great people. Paul Saginaw who’s been my partner in all this from the beginning was the general manager at that restaurant, that’s how we met. He pretty quickly changed my beliefs about business, my family were all academics and doctors and lawyers and stuff, but his grandfather had been in business and was a very generous spirited man. Paul showed me pretty quickly that business was really just a tool in the same way that you could hit somebody in the head and harm them with a hammer or take the exact same hammer and build a home for a family that didn’t have one. Business was much the same, you could achieve great things for the community or you could cause harm to people and it wasn’t business itself but more how you used it.

Anyways, I started prepping, line cooking, and managing kitchens. I worked for that restaurant group for about four years and then at the fall of ’81 Paul had left to open a local fish market here in town and he and I had stayed friends. Fall of ’81 I decided that it was time to move on. I didn’t hate my job but it was increasingly less rewarding, kind of became clear and clear that what I wanted to do with food, quality and with people management were slowly diverging from their direction. I gave two months notice unsure what would be next and Paul happened to call me two days later and suggest that we go look at this little building that was coming open near the fish market to potentially open a deli which we had talked about. In Detroit, where he grew up, you could get good deli food and you could get it in Chicago but you couldn’t get it here.

That’s really how the conversation started and somehow magically four and a half months later we opened up March 15th, 1982. The original space was 1,300 square feet with 29 seats, 25 sandwiches, a little bit of bread from other bakeries, little bit of olive oil, jam, mustard, charcuterie, smoked fish and stuff, and that’s how we got going. Fast forwarding today, we’re whatever 34 1/2 years down the road. Our organization has I think now 10 businesses, all located here in the Ann Arbor area. Each business is a unique business, we don’t replicate so we just still have the one deli but we also have a bakery, a creamery, a coffee roasting, we have a sit-down restaurant that’s all regional American food, we have an event space that’s a 1834 house and 1837 barn that we renovated to do weddings and corporate events in. We have a mail order business, a candy bar business and we also have ZingTrain which is our training business, which is actually where I’m sitting right now where we do training seminars and people come from all walks of life and literally all over the world to do the training. This fall we’re going to open a Korean restaurant.’

Vera: A Korean restaurant?

Ari: Yes.

Vera: Okay, well that’s a normal segue over from ZingTrain and a deli.

Ari: Well you got 10 businesses. What we do is traditional full flavored foods, so it’s not geographically limited so it’s much closer to what we’ve done from the beginning then opening a production facility like a bakery or coffee roasting.

Vera: That’s true, so from a systems perspective I know that you have this incredible concept of the power of belief, and you can see that on ZingTrain.com. Within there you’ve got a section on training and business systems, so you had mentioned earlier in the introduction that you really wanted to talk to our listeners about your visioning process or systems. Could you share a little bit about really what that means to you, the visioning and then lets drill down into kind of the specifics of visioning.

Ari: Sure, happy to do that. To be clear, when we opened back in ’82 with two employees we did not have a lot of fancy systems. I mean we had systems for taking inventory and recipe writing and costing and all those sorts of things, but when you only have two employees you can get away without a lot of detail in your systems work. As one grows, and today we have over 700 employees and we do about $60 million in sales, as one grows the systems work, as you already know, becomes more and more imperative.

The visioning is one of many, many things that we do that I believe has contributed enormously to our work here. I think clearly the work here, I think clearly the term vision or the concept of vision is not unique to us, it’s a standard business conversation. I think that for most people who are considered in quotes visionaries, it’s something that they just kind of do in their head but they can’t really explain why they do what they do, or how they do what they do, or teach others to do what they do, they just do it. What tends to happen in a world then is that those people become sort of separated from the rest of us by being called brilliant visionaries and the rest of us become just sort of like everyday people that follow the visionaries.

I guess what I believe is that everybody actually is capable of visioning. I believe it’s a natural human process which you can find daily just by hanging around with a five or six year old because every five minutes they got a new vision of what they’re doing and they’re not bothered by how they’re going to become a dinosaur, or where the dinosaur food is coming from, or how they transform from being a six year old girl into a superhero or whatever it’s going to be, they just do it. I think that as we grow older society beats us down and sort of forces that creative edge out of us and the visioning process that we use is really just a way to reinstall that I guess natural software program into our brains. That’s kind of an overview.

There’s an essay I wrote in part one of the business book on Natural Laws of Business, and it’s my belief that all successful organizations live in harmony with those natural laws whether they know what they are or not doesn’t really matter. The first natural law is that all successful organizations are really all successful people, have a vision of greatness that’s inspiring and strategically sound. When we started our vision was really just in our heads which is pretty much the norm for most people who start an organization, but the visioning process, the system, the recipe that we’re going to talk about today is really how we take it out of our heads and put it into a teachable model that we can and do teach to literally everybody that works here and then also to literally thousands of people all over the world who come to ZingTrain or who read the business books and stuff.

Vera: Do you have a specific name for the vision system or is it just the vision system?

Ari: We don’t call it the vision system, we call it visioning and we talk about writing a vision. A vision for us here at Zingerman’s, the way we would define it is that when you get to success at a particular point in time in the future and you can describe that success with enough richness of emotionally engaging detail that you will actually know whether you have arrived, that’s your vision. Most people use what I would consider a business school model of vision writing which gives you a two sentence sort of broad statement that I never really quite understood what it’s purpose was. For us a vision is way more detailed. Our vision for Zingerman’s Community of Business is currently, which was written on ’07 for the year 2020 is nine pages long.

Basically it’s sitting down and writing the story whether it’s Vera Fischer 10 years from now or your business 10 or 20 or five years from now and really describing what’s going on, and the inclusion of engaging emotionally interesting detail drastically alters it. I’m all for goal setting but we actually embed the goal in the vision, because without the emotional description it really loses it’s power and it’s passion and it’s ability to inspire other people. I think when we’re the leaders we attach the emotion to the goal statement because we’ve internalized it for so long, but when you have 100 or 50 or 10 or whatever people working with you they don’t have that emotion that you and I might have for the vision because it’s not their vision. By really spelling it out in much more detail and telling stories basically within the vision it really comes alive in a way that becomes meaningful to everybody.

Vera: Who participates in that visioning exercise? Is it yourself and your business partner or is it part of your executive team, who are the players?

Ari: One can do it any way one wants in terms of who’s included. Here we write visions for everything so we have a vision for Zingerman’s overall, each business has a vision, every project gets a vision, people write personal visions, people start using it at home, for their wedding or their honeymoon, or whatever it might be because it’s just clear that if you know where you’re going the odds of getting where you want to go go up pretty significantly. Then when you don’t know where you’re going the odds of ending up where you want are pretty low. People learn the process and the system itself is replicable really for any project small or large. Some of our businesses write a vision for every shift that would be set at the end of the day.

When we write an organizational vision here we do it in a very inclusive way. We use a consensus model for decision making at the partner level and all of our businesses have managing partners in them, so what we call the partners group which includes all those managing partners, it makes the final decision. In ’07 that was I think 18 people, but we actually use a different system which is out bottom line change system, which is designed to include as many people as possible in designing the change before it’s made, as opposed to just telling them what you’re going to do after the decision has been made. We got about 250 of the then 500 people got involved.

An autocratically dictated vision by a leader is better than no vision because at least people know where they’re going, but I would suggest that an inclusive, collaboratively written, engaging vision where you really bring people into the process, help them understand A how to do it, and then B why it matters, and then C listen to their input and incorporate as much of it as you can. You end up with a far more powerful document, it’s richer. We all have different perspectives and the guy who works the loading dock or the guy who answers the phone is going to see things different than the woman who’s the CEO. We all have different perspectives and when we try to do something in a hierarchical way, this is my anarchist voice speaking, when we try to do something in a hierarchical way we’re going to miss out on 90% of the wisdom in the organization.

Vera: Did you always start with that vision system or the visioning process as it is today, or did you go through some iterations until you settled on okay, this is what visioning looks like in our organization?

Ari: Well we didn’t start with any of it, we just opened the business. I mean I think that’s probably true for most people unless they learned it from us or I don’t know, but the actual recipe, the design of this work was begun at University of Michigan by a guy named Ron Lippitt in the late 50s, 60s and 70s at the Institute of Social Research which is still quite a prominent academic research organization and at the time was actually very, very cutting edge. He called it preferred futuring, and the whole idea of the system is to get people to stop being reactive to the present problems and present day opportunities and start to focus on a positive future. Not on fixing what’s wrong, it’s not about problem solving, it’s about designing the life that you individually or collectively want to live.

We actually learned it through a guy named Stas’ Kazmierski, who learned it from Ron Lippitt, and we’ve adapted it and adjusted it some but the core of the initial work came from Ron. We learned it from Stas’ in the early 90s so we were about 10 years in. In hindsight I could say that when we opened, although we didn’t call it a vision, we had one like everybody who starts an organization, we knew from the beginning we wanted a unique place, not a copy of something from New York or Chicago or LA. We knew that we wanted great food, great service, and a great place for people to work, in a very down to Earth setting, and we knew from the get go that we only wanted one store. I really like unique things, I don’t like replicas, I don’t begrudge other people from opening them but it’s not how I want to live, so that was really what was in our heads.

Fast forwarding about 11 years, so this would be 1993, Paul had, my partner has what I come to call a pretty good organizational, intuitive organizational alarm clock. It’s like your alarm clock in the morning, it’s kind of annoying when it goes off but it’s usually going off for a good reason. He sat me down on the little bench that’s out in front of the deli still to this day, mid-morning which is about the time, if you haven’t worked in food, you should know that you would actually be cranking really hard to get ready for the lunch rush so it’s probably the least opportune time to sit down. He grabbed me and with no warning sort of said, “Okay, in 10 years what are we doing?” I had no clue. It’s not like I didn’t think we needed to improve and it’s not like I wasn’t working on improvement, but there’s a huge difference between steady improvement based on where you are today then to really focus on where you want to be.

In part three of the book I wrote an essay on personal visioning and there’s a quote in there from Sam Keen, K-E-E-N, that says to ask the simple question what do you really want is not really risky, it is revolutionary. That’s really what Paul was asking me and I really had no clue. It took about a year of us arguing, dialoging, talking, trying to come up with the answer to his question and that was really when we started to work with Stas’ who’s office was up the block and to really learn about the visioning process.

We ended up writing a six page vision called Zingerman’s 2009 that outlined the idea of having a community of businesses all located in the Ann Arbor area, each with it’s own unique specialty but each being a Zingerman’s business. Each having a managing partner or partners in it that had a real passion for what that business did, where we would operate as one synergistic organization but with the semi-autonomous pieces within it. That was really where we started to learn visioning, and then over the last 20 whatever years we’ve practiced it, learned it more, worked more with Stas’, he was a second partner at ZingTrain along with Maggie Bayless for about 10 years before he retired.

We teach internal classes, we teach the two-day visioning seminar, I wrote a lot about it in the four part business book series, I taught it last year in Bratislava and Slovakia, I taught it in Ethiopia, it’s impacted a lot of people and I would tell you flat out I would not be here without it, Zingerman’s would probably not be here without it and even if we were here it would be a drastically different organization than what we are. I would say pretty confidently, because we’ve taught it to so many people, it’s changed thousands of lives.

Vera: How many days is the training for that visioning process?

Ari: It’s a two day seminar. We do about 10 different seminars, that’s just one of them. It’s a two day one and the seminars, as you said earlier, at ZingTrain.com.

Vera: Great and just a point of clarification, what I’m hearing is that from a visioning perspective and you mentioning five and six year old kids that just figure out that they want to be maybe a dinosaur and they don’t really worry about how they’re going to get there, it sounds like the most difficult part of this visioning process is to get very specific emotionally about what the canvas looks like 10 years from now and not worrying about point A to point B.

Ari: Yes, that’s absolutely true. What we describe is that the vision is the what, so it’s what does success look like, feel like, in our case taste like, sound like, whatever and then later we work on the how which is the strategic planning work where we try to figure out what we’re going to do to make it a reality. We don’t start on the strategic planning ever until first we agreed on the vision.

Vera: I think that’s where a lot of listeners get stuck is they feel like the visioning has to be the how.

Ari: Yes, society flips us back and forth intermittently from one to the next and we end up doing neither. Most organizations that are doing strategic planning are trying to figure out what to do next year but they don’t know where they’re going. It’s sort of like your significant other calls you and goes honey, pack for vacation we’re leaving tomorrow. What’s the first thing you want to ask?

Vera: Where are we going?

Ari: Right and they go come one, just read some statistics, let’s get with the program. You can figure out what women pack on vacation, but whether you’re going to the beach or you’re going to the mountains or whether you’re going for a month or three days it’s drastically different, and they’re all perfectly vacations but it’s kind of important to agree on which one you want before you start figuring out what to bring.

Vera: That’s exactly right and that’s really easy way to remember it too.

Ari: You’re right that the hard part, in a way, is to separate it but getting into the actual system, the system itself is actually the key of this because it precludes you from over-thinking it. Again we go through this in much more detail in the seminar and in the books have all of this in them also and then I’m going to also say before I forget, my email is ari@zingermans.com and people are more than welcome to email me directly with question. Also, our 20/20 vision is on the ZingTrain site under some of the free samples that are up there if people want to take a look at what we’ve done with that one here. We have dozens and dozens of sub-visions that are also written.

Vera: Where can the listeners get your book, Amazon?

Ari: No, I don’t really like Amazon no offense, we actually went out of the big publishing world so we do all of the design here. We actually have them printed in the Ann Arbor area 15 minutes from where I’m sitting and so they’re on the ZingTrain site. We do all the design, we do it all in-house here, it seemed a little incongruous, we work with traditional handmade food and we don’t sell it, no offense, at Costco or whatever. We’re selling it in places that really are interested in working with artisan products, and so I wanted to make artisan books that were congruous with what we do with the food.

Vera: Well Ari I think that trying to be all things to all people is never a good business strategy, so staying true to your core values and staying true to who you are and customizing your business and your community of businesses to you as a person is what each person should seek in business. You don’t have to be all things to all people and customization provides you a better life regardless of what it is that it looks like.

Ari: Fully agreed, in fact I don’t think you can be all things to all people, I think it’s a recipe for guaranteed failure. That’s true in your personal life or at work.

Vera: I agree, well Ari I really want to thank you for being a guest on our show. You’ve really provided some amazing insight, especially to the visioning process system and I know, for one, I’m going to be on your site looking at those books and getting my own copy. Maybe at some point in the future you’d like to come back and share another system with us?

Ari: Absolutely and happy to do that.

Vera: Alright well thank you so much Ari.

Ari: Thank you and have a wonderful day.

We hope you found this episode of System Execution enlightening. For free examples, case studies, ebooks and more be sure to visit Systemexecution.com/resources. Contribute to the conversation by reaching out to Vera directly on email at vera@systemexecution.com. Until our next episode, thank you for the privilege of your time.

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