Enjoy a Lean Coffee

What is Lean Coffee?

Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith founded the Lean Coffee movement in Seattle in 2009. Since then, Lean Coffee events have sprung up around the world. The basic idea is for a group of people to get together to discuss topics around which they share a common interest, specifically around agile, lean, kanban, lean startup, etc. There is also an OpenCoffee movement, founded by Saul Klein in 2007. The intent behind OpenCoffee is to provide an open forum for investors, entrepreneurs and developers to come together, meet, discuss ideas, and find opportunities to work together.

The Lean Coffee format is essentially an approach to facilitating learning and collaboration through group discussions. The ‘Lean’ part of the name has its roots in Lean Thinking, and related areas of Lean Production, Lean Software, Lean Startup, etc. The ‘Coffee’ part of the name obviously comes from that nice drink that some of us are partial to. Meetups typically take place in the morning, at a local coffee house, at the same time and place each week.

Lean Coffee events are increasingly becoming a fixture at many conferences, in a similar way that Open Space has. We had a great Lean Coffee event at LESS2011 in Stockholm last year.

How it works

The Lean Coffee format has a lot in common with Open Space, particularly in the sense that you are asking people to move away from an agenda-driven gathering to a more open, collaborative, dynamic, emergent type of gathering.

The protocol, borrowed and modified from the Sydney Lean Coffee group and Limited WIP Society, is as follows:

  1. Everyone offers topics they are interested in discussing by writing them on index cards (or sticky notes).
  2. Everyone presents his or her topic as an Elevator Pitch (max 1 minute per topic).
  3. Use dot voting to vote on each of the topics.  Each person gets two votes. You can only vote once per topic.
  4. Prepare three columns on a table or wall. Call them “Planned”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Add all topics to the “Planned” column, with those that received the highest votes at the top.
  5. Discuss each topic in turn. Move the index card for the topic into the “In Progress” column. Initially, ask the proposer to explain the topic, then go round the table to give an opportunity for everyone to provide an initial comment, then open discussion.
  6. When the topic is done, move on to the next one.  The topic proposer decides when the topic is done, and moves the index card to the “Done” column.  If someone disagrees, then s/he can raise a new topic.  Expect to discuss 3-4 topics over the space of an hour or so.
  7. Consider time boxing each topic to 15 minutes max.
  8. At the end of the overall Lean Coffee session, run a quick retrospective.  What did you like? What didn’t you like? What are ideas for improvement?

As a variation, particularly if you have a large group, consider splitting into sub-groups if people are particularly passionate about specific topics. Then get back together after the topic discussion to present highlights to, and get feedback from, the wider group.

Lean Coffee at work

The idea and format for Lean Coffee is very simple and effective. It can be used in work too. For example, consider hosting a Lean Coffee event every week in your office. It can be a great way to share experiences and challenges across teams and gather interested people who don’t normally get to discuss these topics together.

If you find your retrospectives are becoming routine, then this is a good way to break out of the rut. There is no leader or facilitator required. The team can self-organize a Lean Coffee style event without any preparation. The team decides which topics to discuss, and how long to spend on each topic.

The only prerequisites are a set of index cards or sticky notes, a set of Sharpies, and some interested and willing people.

Lean Coffee at Agile Lean Galway

We’re going to try running the next Agile Lean Galway meetup as a Lean Coffee event. All our meetups so far have been upstairs in the Dail Bar, Middle Street, Galway.

We’ll kick off at 7pm. Sign up if you are interested in coming along.

Come along if you

  • have heard about Agile and Lean and want to know more
  • are trying to implement Lean thinking at your organization and could use some advice and guidance
  • know a lot about agile and lean and would like to share your knowledge and find out what others are doing
  • like coffee and interesting conversation about agile, lean, etc.
  • don’t like coffee, and just want to join the conversation

If we like the format, and the idea, and there’s enough interest, then maybe we’ll spin off Lean Coffee Galway as a separate event. Maybe as an early morning coffee event?


Some sites for Lean Coffee Meetups around the world:

Writings about Lean Coffee