What is Lean Coffee, how does it work and what are the advantages?
An agendaless meeting for exchange at eye level
Often, meetings are considered time-consuming, unproductive, and inappropriate. A lack of objectives, participants with different interests, a missing agenda – a list of points of criticism is easy to create. Lean Coffee does not try to eliminate these mistakes, but makes a virtue out of them. Lean Coffee is a format for a meeting, without a pre-defined agenda, without an obligation to participate and without a pre-defined objective. It is a structured format for unstructured meetings.
How does Lean Coffee work?
- An invitation is published – e.g. on the bulletin board, by e-mail, on the intranet, etc. – with place, date, time, duration (usually between 1 and 2 hours) of the meeting and ideally a set of topics so that potential participants can assess whether they are interested in an exchange.
- Before the meeting begins, a flip chart or whiteboard with a table consisting of three columns is prepared: “to discuss”, “in discussion” and “discussed”. Alternatively, the columns can also be called “ready”, “in progress” and “done”.
- A participant of the group takes over the coordination or moderation during the meeting.
- Topics and questions are collected. Each participant notes his or her personal questions on moderation cards or post-its. All questions are arranged in the column “to discuss” and are visible to all participants. There is no limit to the number of questions per participant. Ideally, each question poser is given the opportunity to briefly explain the background of the question and thus make a little advertisement for the respective topic.
- The topics are prioritized. Each participant gives 2 (sometimes also 3 or 5) points, whereby all points may also be used for a single (and own) topic.
- The topics are sorted according to the number of points. The topic with the most points is discussed first.
- The group determines a timebox, i.e. the duration of one discussion per topic. It often depends on the number of topics. Since as many topics as possible are to be discussed, time windows of 5 or 10 minutes are often agreed upon.
- The discussion on the first topic begins. The coordinator pushes the first moderation card into the column “in discussion”. The question poser explains the background of his topic and, if necessary, a desired result. The discussion begins.
- The coordinator ensures that the timebox is adhered to. When the agreed time has expired, he asks the participants whether the topic should be discussed further or whether it has been finally discussed. The vote can be done simply by hand signal or by “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.
- It should be clarified in advance whether there should be a majority decision or a veto decision. In the case of a veto decision, a vote for the end of the discussion is sufficient to end the discussion during the meeting.
- If there is an extension, depending on the agreement, a new time box begins with a) identical duration or b) shortened duration (e.g. half of the original time box).
- Even after a possible second round, a query follows; if the vote provides for a further extension, the topic should be discussed in a separate meeting. In order to be able to discuss further topics during the meeting, the moderation card is moved to “discussed” or alternatively to a separate column “separate meeting”.
- The moderator moves the second moderation card to the “in discussion” column and it starts.
Often not all topics are discussed within a Lean Coffee. It is the responsibility of each participant to discuss topics that have not been discussed at the next meeting.
The first public Lean Coffee was conducted by Jeremy Lightsmith and Jim Bensen, two American Agile Coaches, 2009 in Seattle, USA. The name goes back to the principles of Lean Thinking – with individual learning, personal responsibility and knowledge exchange – in a desirable coffee shop atmosphere.
Advantages of Lean Coffee
The big advantages of Lean Coffee are
- in the simplicity of the format,
- the low organisational effort for preparation and implementation,
- the discussion at eye level and without hierarchies,
- the brevity of the format,
- and the regularity of the exchange.
A good moderator, consistent visualization and adherence to the agreed timebox are important for success. The larger the group, the more difficult it becomes to use the format; a similar problem occurs in walk and talk meetings. And it’s probably not a good idea to organise a Lean Coffee stand-up meeting due to the time it takes.