Lean Coffee

An Agile Technique for Talking Things Through

by Jean Richardson, PMP

Have you ever had a conversation with a sponsor or customer or held a team meeting where it seemed like the conversation was all over the place but no one seemed to be getting what they wanted?  Or have you been trying to form a community of practice or community of interest but haven’t found a good way of talking about the most important things on everyone’s mind? 

Lean Coffee is a method created in Seattle by Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, and Jeremy Lightsmith, an Agile Coach.  It allows you to create a collaboratively developed agenda that is prioritized to meet the needs of the individuals present and managed to fit the timebox available.  It’s based on Lean principles and the collaboration ethic ethic of Agile.  In the last few years, it has spread rapidly around the world and provided many enduring discussion forums.  Here are the guidlines:

  • Set up a Kanban board.
  • Populate it with post-it notes with topics important to those present.  One topic per Post-it, please!
  • Prioritize the topics using voting.  Each participant gets two votes.
  • Start the conversation.

Set Up a Kanban Boardkanban

You’ve probably heard of the basic Kanban board format:  To Do, Doing, Done.  You can use any set of terms you want to use, such as To Discuss, Discussing, Discussed, as shown in the picture.  To begin with, everything goes in the first column.

Populate It with Important Stuff

Have Post-it’s and pens ready and let everyone present contribute by writing one idea per Post-It and contributing it to the first column.  Some people may choose to contribute more than one idea and some people may just want to come along as tourists.  One way to bound the set of ideas is to set a general topic such as “Let’s talk about the current state of the project.  This should take about 3 to 5 minutes, especially once you get used to building an agenda this way.

Once your backlog of topics is populated, ask each writer to describe his topic in a sentence or two (15 to 30 seconds).  This gets you ready to prioritize.

Prioritize the Topics Using Voting

You use multi-voting to prioritize the topics by the interest level of the participants.  Each person gets two votes.  (Note:  You may want to modify this number after you experiment with Lean Coffee for a while.)  They can distribute their votes any way they like:  one vote on each topic until they run out of votes, all votes on one topic, or some votes here and some there.  To make this easy, you can just draw a little box in the corner of each Post-It (enlist your fellow discussants to make this go fast) and then let each person use a pen or pencil to signify their two dots.

Count the votes on the Post-Its to rank order the topics.  Now, you’re ready to go!

Start the Conversation

Choose the topic at the top of the list in the first column and move it to the second column.  Some facilitators feel it’s easiest to move the conversation along if they set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes (cell phones work great for this) and then take a quick Roman vote.  Thumbs up means “let’s keep going with this topic.”  Thumbs down means “let’s move on.”  Thumbs sideways means “I’ll do whatever the group wants.”  Majority doesn’t necessarily rule here.  If some people are interested in going forward with the topic the first round or two it’s probably worthwhile going forward and satisfying their interest.  This may not be true the fourth time around, though . . .

Get the Experience

It’s great to try out Lean Coffee as a participant a time or two.  Fortunately for us, there’s a Lean Coffee Meetup that sprang out of a long running Lean Coffee gathering at New Relic.  You can find out about the Meetup here, sign up, and attend a session or to.  Though a long-term downtown and very early morning group, this new offshoot group is trying several different locations around town and different times of day.

For more information about Lean Coffee, take a look at their very brief web site:  leancoffee.org.  There you can see the method described and the list of cities where Lean Coffee lives.  As with most Agile practices, experiential learning and sharing are key to Lean Coffee.

About the Author

Jean Richardson is the Agile Community of Practice Chapter Engagement Representative for the Portland, Oregon chapter of PMI.  She is also an agile coach and project management professional with more than 20 years’ experience with clients in the Portland metro area.  Her initial agile training, the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) credential, was provided by Ken Schwaber, one of the two developers of the Scrum framework.  You can read her blog on leadership, agile, and project management at http://azuregate.net/blog-archive/ and link with her at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=7674981&trk=tab_pro. You can correspond with her at jean@azuregate.net.

See her recently published InfoQ article We Need No Less Than Pervasive Leadership describing an approach to leading that supports agility.