Absinthe, the “Green Fairy”, and Operational Excellence

Absinthe, the “Green Fairy”, and Operational Excellence
May 27, 2009 Joseph Paris

XONITEK-US and XONITEK-UK recently hosted an Operational Excellence Summit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  If you have ever been to Amsterdam, you will know there are distinct cultural differences which are quite obvious if you are from New York – even from a pre-Giuliani New York.

From each place I visit, I’ve always liked to acquire artifacts which are unique to the culture and display them in my office.  One artifact I consistently collect is a bottle of the local “rot-gut ”.  For instance, I have a bottle of “Mompoer” and some “Tot-Packs ” from South Africa; a bottle of “Grappa ” from Italy; a bottle of top-shelf “Tequila” and “Mezcal ” from Mexico; and a bottle of “Wodka”, as well as “Sliwowica ” from Poland.  These bottles sit, unopened, in my office on the shelves dedicated to the country or region visited as curios and conversation pieces.

So it only stands to reason that I would bring back a bottle of “Absinthe ” from Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

With the single possible exception of the rot-gut they make in Peru called “Chicha ” (made by the local folks chewing on roots and spitting into a vat where the concoction ferments from the chemical reaction of the saliva on the sugar to be drank by the most desperate), Absinthe has the most unique story behind it of any spirit – both history and legend.  It is an anise-flavoured spirit made from herbs, including the grande-wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthium) which is argued to be a hallucinogen if taken in significant quantities.

There is the legend of those consuming the beverage seeing the “green fairy” – which in reality merely refers to the “louche-ing ” when the beverage is mixed with ice and water.  And there are also the legends associated with the alleged hallucinogenic effects attributing to the creative genius and sometimes eccentricity of imbibers such as: Edgar Degas, Jules Verne, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Edger Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway – to name but a few.

Although Absinthe was banned by the United States in 1912, in March 2007 the ban was lifted after the lobbying efforts of Lucid and Kubler, with the French Lucid brand becoming the first genuine Absinthe to receive a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA ).  Since then, other importers, as well as some American distillers, have manufactured and distributed Absinthe in the United States.

So I bought a bottle of 160-Proof Absinthe called, appropriately enough, “Vincent van Gogh”.  It was a nicely designed bottle with a label that incorporated one of van Gogh’s “self-portraits ” and the liquid inside was a distinct shade of Absinthe green.  I was certain that it would look good on my Netherlands shelf right next to the Delftware plate I had also purchased.  As it was certainly over the 3oz carry-on limit for liquids, I packed it into my checked luggage.

I am sure you find this all very intriguing – especially if you followed some of the links I provided to give you some very fascinating history.  But you are probably saying, “That’s interesting.  So what”?

During the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, all of the passengers received a Customs Control Document which basically serves to identify who you are, what countries you have visited, the purpose of  your visit, whether you have had any contact with farms or farm critters, and how-much and what-kind of loot you are bringing into the country.

Almost every country I have ever visited just asks these types of questions at Passport Control and, if you answer in a manner that is suspicious or otherwise unsatisfactory, you go to a secondary interview.  I would suspect that one would trap more suspects with verbal interaction than by written – so I am left wondering what the value of the Customs Control Document is.

In the United States, the completed Customs Control Document, along with your passport, is handed to the Immigration Officer at Passport Control – at which time the Officer will scan and examine your passport, look over your Customs Control Document, and proceed to ask some questions of varying detail – depending upon a variety of variables I am sure.

Assuming you are not detained, you then proceed to Customs Control where they take the Customs Control Document and ask the same questions that were asked at Passport Control.  One must keep in mind that there is no way to determine whether the answers given at Passport Control are the same as at Customs Control.  This process seems rather redundant and wasteful and, therefore, has within it a prima facea opportunity for improvement.

In my case, a key question that was asked of me at both Passport Control and Customs Control was, “Are you carrying any alcohol?”

To which I responded. “Yes.  I have one bottle of Absinthe.”

… Wrong answer…

The Passport Control Officer seemed to not care, but the Customs Control Officer marked “Absinthe” on my Customs Control Document and asked that I follow the “blue arrows.”

So I follow the blue arrows to the station where the Officers who are going to perform the secondary interview are – certain scenes from “Midnight Express ” flash through my mind.  I am asked curtly to “Put my bags on the conveyor”.

I place the bags on the conveyor and, knowing for what they are searching, I open my checked luggage and pull-out the bottle of Absinthe.  The Officer looks at the bottle and reaches for a book which is about a half-inch thick.  He thumbs through the book, goes to the index, finds the page he is looking for, turns the book around and points to the page that says, “… bringing Absinthe into the United States is prohibited…”  And then he says, “See?”

My response, “Yes, I see…  They didn’t give me one of those books when I left the country”.  I am sensing that he does not have a sense of humour.  I am starting to wonder if I will like Turkish food.

He proceeds to tell me that the spirit cannot be imported because it has alleged hallucinogenic effects if consumed, to which I respond, “It’s 160-Proof, 80% alcohol – of course it will cause hallucinations if consumed.”  He is not amused and I am trying to remember which way I should walk around the pillars.

He looks through my passport and asks if I have any aliases.  The first thing that comes to mind is “Tater Salad”.  But for once in my life I manage to choke it back and simply respond, “No”.  I am wondering what “Billy Hayes” would do.

He passes me to another Officer who asks me to bring my bags to a different conveyor – which I oblige, of course.  Once I have my bags sprawled on the other conveyor, he begins to almost apologize for the inconvenience – going as far as to say “It’s a stupid rule.”  I am starting to feel more relaxed, but at the same time wondering if I am being “good-cop/bad-copped”.

For those of you who like to skip ahead to the meat, start reading here

He then proceeds to begin formally “seizing” the Absinthe.  We go through the basics of my identity and the purpose of my visit toAmsterdam.  Then he asks me how much I paid for it.  I respond, “About 20-bucks” and I ask him why he doesn’t “just take it and pour it down the drain?”

He looks at me and says, “We use the same process to seize this twenty-dollar bottle of Absinthe as we do to seize a kilo of cocaine.  It will cost $4,000 to $5,000 in manpower and resources to seize and destroy this single twenty-dollar bottle of Absinthe that nobody cares about.”  He then adds, “The only procedural difference between seizing this bottle of Absinthe and seizing a kilo of cocaine is that handcuffs are not involved.”

I am aghast and simply respond, “No shit…”

He goes on to explain to me that this bottle of Absinthe will be formally seized with full documentation and accompanied by at least two officers whenever it is not in the evidence vault.  It will be checked into the evidence vault at the airport until guarded transport to the FBI Headquarters in Detroit can be arranged.  It will then be transferred to the FBI evidence vault where it will await its “trial”, be found “guilty”, and formally “destroyed.”  This will take between 60 and 90 days.

Not usually at a loss for words, all I can say is, “No shit…”

I stand there the entire time it takes to formally seize my bottle of Absinthe.  He is obviously uncomfortable detaining me longer than he has to and is eager to see me on my way.  I let him know I have plenty of time to catch my next flight so not to worry.  In all, he is very thorough, polite and respectful.  I have no complaints as to how I was treated.

I ask if this incident is going to “flag” me or otherwise put me on a list, or if there is a fine, to which he responds, “No… there will be no permanent record attached to you.”  I then ask him if I have to sign anything and he says, “No.  There is nothing to sign.”  But he does give me a receipt for the confiscated bottle of Absinthe – for what, I don’t know.

Finally, after 45 minutes, I am released and free to go on my way.

Unbelievable…

Although Operational Excellence abhors variants, it abhors complexity and waste even more.  My humble recommendation is that there should be two processes for the handling of seized contraband – with the simple test being the “handcuff test”.  If handcuffs are not involved, then you destroy or otherwise secure for destruction the confiscated item with the minimum amount of paperwork, effort, and fuss.  If handcuffs are involved, then you use the full seizure process.

What about the simple fact that there are obviously conflicts or disconnects that exist in the policies related to the handling of Absinthe – one where it is legal to purchase and import and another where it is not?  How many similar incidents like this occur on a daily basis and what is the total cost?  How many other different and wasteful processes like this exist in government?  What other conflicts might exist and what is the cost of this waste to the government?  What about just the cost of keeping obsolete or outdated rules and regulations on the books?  Perhaps a 5-S exercise on laws and regulations would yield a considerable savings?

It boggles…

But I walked away not only educated and enlightened by the experience, but also had a tremendous sense of satisfaction knowing that I saved the government an additional $4,000 to $5,000…

… You see, I decided not to mention the box of Romeo y Julieta #1 Tubos, Habanas that I had in my carry-on.

Click here to view the Customs & Border Control’s ”Absinthe” Notice of Seizure.

 

Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 25,000 members.

For more information on Paris, please check his Linked-In Profile at: http://de.linkedin.com/in/josephparis  

Joseph Paris

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