Seattle Lean Coffee Could be Anywhere. (Updated 05-31-2012)


A couple months ago I began attending Seattle Lean Coffee. I had first heard of lean coffee last year when Jon Bach and Jim Benson told me about it at my first SEASPIN (Seattle Eastside Area Software Process Improvement Network).

I was highly impressed with the efficient democratic process of using a kanban to run a meetup.

Seattle Lean Coffee is held every Wednesday at Kakao Coffee at 415 Westlake.

Usually somebody (often Jim Benson, or Jeremy Lightsmith) shows up with some post-it pads and sharpies. A kanban is created on the table with a ready, doing and done sticky note marking the swim lanes. The attendees each write down what they’d like to discuss on a post-it sticky note and stick it in under the “ready” column. Once the backlog is populated each attendee takes a moment to describe their topic in a sentence or two. Once we’ve heard all the topics there is a vote. Each attendee marks the topic that interests them most. We’re limited to 2 votes each and less than 5 minutes after we all started, we have a prioritized backlog. We pull the topic with the most votes to the “doing” column and get started talking. Once we move a topic into the “doing” column somebody keeps time on the discussion. The time-box is usually set to 8 minutes. After 8 minutes we have a silent roman vote. The roman vote consists of holding up thumbs. Thumb up means “I’d like to continue this topic” Thumb sideways means “I am ambivalent” and Thumb down means “I no longer have anything to contribute.” If the majority shows passion (thumbs up) or ambivalence (sideways) we set a timebox for half the original time (4 minutes in this case). When I facilitate I’ll adjust the time-box according to passion. If we barely made a “yes” vote I’ll set a shorter box (e.g. 2 minutes) and we’ll continue. Once the majority votes to move on, we pull the current sticky to the “done” column and then start a new time-box on the next topic.

Once the clock strikes 10, we re-iterate that there is no commitment to end on time and either continue the discussions or end Lean Coffee for the day. Once we’ve decided Lean Coffee is over we hold up our hands to give feedback. We call it R.O.T.I. (return on time invested) vote. We all hold out our hands showing anywhere from 1 to 5 fingers. 5 fingers signifies that we could not imagine having spent the last 90 minutes in any better way. 3 fingers is still good, it just equates to a “B” and 1 finger means what 1 finger usually means. Anybody giving an R.O.T.I of 2 or 1 is asked to share what we could have done as a group to make this experience better so we can do so next time.

We get people from all walks of business in attendance. Software Engineers, Project Managers, Manufacturing, Healthcare, and High Tech have all been represented in the few short weeks I’ve attended lean coffee.

The quality of the conversation is always shockingly high. I always learn something and have so much fun being exposed to so many contexts that I would normally never experience. I suppose I’m a process nerd since I get tremendous enjoyment out of trying to apply my experiences in software to health care, and government contexts as well as learning new things from them to apply to my work.

The format is simple and powerful, there is no reason you can’t have lean coffee if you’re not able to come to Seattle. Tweet some tweets or blog to get interest, invite your co-workers to coffee or other like-minded peers and bring a stack of post-its and some pens. It’s that easy! Seriously we can all learn a lot from each other just by getting together and having a conversation. :-)

Update: Change to closing process! (05-31-2012)

Yesterday Jeremy Lightsmith suggested rather than doing a quantitative assessment (R.O.T.I) that we go around the table and each state something we take away from that day’s discussion. Jim Benson had a slew of notes that will make their way into an upcoming series of ebooks, Jeremy came away with a motivation to try and write a personal blog post for each lean coffee he attends. I stole Jeremy’s idea, and came away impressed by how much amazing extra value we got from cementing our experiences with each other at the end. The death of R.O.T.I. is welcome given how much more awesome the “Takeaway” process was. “At the end of lean coffee we go around the table and get take aways from the group. Anybody can pass and choose not to share a take away.” Discontinuous improvement FTW!

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13 Responses to Seattle Lean Coffee Could be Anywhere. (Updated 05-31-2012)

  1. Hey Adam, would you be interested in hosting the first Lynnwood CAST Lean Coffee? It would be neat to start the day this way at a conference. I’d be glad to help out and bring post-its.

    I can’t get to Seattle early enough to attend the real thing, but I’ve been wanting to learn more about LEAN especially since I’m a new Kanban fan.

    • Adam Yuret says:

      I’d be glad to host a lean coffee at CAST, I assume there will be pre-opening keynote breakfast/coffee we can just find a time and gauge interest over the twittars.

      If we have a lot of people we can just split into two tables. We could even do a lean coffee about context-driven testing if we want. Nothing says we have to discuss lean principles in this format. :-) Loads of opportunities there.

    • Adam Yuret says:

      Also Jeff Smith said the following on G+ yesterday: Jeff Smith – We did start an Eastside Lean Coffee in Bellevue – Tuesday Mornings :-)

      • Grady Brumbaugh says:

        Hey Adam,

        Do you have details on the Eastside Lean Coffee – would LOVE to attend!

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  5. mike says:

    Very interesting, this is really excellent. Is there a vote about whether to continue the meeting after 10, or is it done by consensus? e.g., What if there’s a split? My concern is that some people would want to continue the meeting and then the ones that wanted to leave would leave, and compromising the closing process.

    • Adam Yuret says:

      Yes, so this happens. Sometimes people have to leave before ten and we lose their takeaway. With R.O.T.I. people could throw up some fingers to let us know how they felt on the way out but that required the departing person to be aware of the R.O.T.I. process.

      When we end what I usually will do is state that it’s 10 but if we’d like to continue there’s no reason to stop. But if people need to leave we’ll do a quick round of takeaways so we get that value prior to keepin’ on. Really it’s not meant to be a super-rigid process so it is somewhat flexible. Sometimes you can tell at 9:55 that people are ready to move on, sometimes it’s super-passionate and we miss that the closing hour has passed. In that event usually I’ll suggest to we takeaways when the topic is finished. We usually end at 10ish though and things migrate to post-lean coffee individual conversations or people will stay at the table and chat. It’s pretty fluid at that point. The main point I mean to get across with the “no commitment to end on time” suggestion is that there should not be a compulsion to shut down a passionate discussion because of an arbitrary number on the clock. :-)

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