Lean Coffee Facilitator’s Guide

Having facilitated a number of Lean Coffee sessions in the recent past, here is a brief how-to-guide for facilitators, based on my own experiences with what works the best.

Origin

Lean Coffee started in Seattle in 2009. At the time, co-creators Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith were looking for a technique that would support discussion of Lean techniques in knowledge work. Simply stated,

They wanted a group that did not rely on anything other than people showing up and wanting to learn or create.

Purpose and Format

The Lean Coffee format is easy to learn and easy to facilitate. As you might guess from the name, it combines Lean Thinking (often embodied in Lean Startup) with the idea of meeting in an informal gathering place like a coffee shop, a conference room, or an open space.

Lean Coffee sessions work best with small groups (ideally ten people or less; when working with larger groups, you could consider splitting them into smaller groups and running separate sessions with each group).

Depending on your context, you could also consider using this technique to introduce a small group of people to topics that they need to learn more about. For instance, while working with a particular team as a Scrum Master, I partnered with a colleague to use Lean Coffee to get a quick read on the level of Agile knowledge of team members as they joined (we did not have the luxury of sending them to external training or setting aside a significant amount of time to train them ourselves).

What You Need to Facilitate a Lean Coffee

Here’s what you need:

  • Enough writing utensils so that each attendee has something to write with (Sharpies are recommended because it is easier to read words written with Sharpies from a distance)
  • A good supply of sticky notes or note cards (any size is fine; sticky notes have the advantage of being usable on either a wall or a tabletop, while note cards will require that you have tape if using a wall)
  • (optional) Tape, if using note cards on a wall surface (painter’s tape is the best option)
  • A timing device (such as a smart phone)
  • A table or wall surface (the larger, the better)

Facilitating the Session

  1. Write the following words/phrases on three separate note cards or sticky notes: “To Do,” “Doing,” “Done” (or alternatively, “To Discuss,” “Discussing,” “Discussed”).
  2. Lay the three cards out horizontally so that each one is at the top of its own column, with plenty of space between each. Note that this three-column arrangement is known as a Personal Kanban.
  3. (optional) Particularly if you are working with a group where at least some of them are not familiar with Lean Coffee, consider suggesting a “theme” for the conversation, such as a particular question that you wish them to focus on answering or a problem you want to help them solve.
  4. Ask each person to write down topics that they would like to talk about on separate sticky notes or note cards. Give them a set amount of time, ideally three to five minutes. Be sure to give them one or more warnings before time expires.
  5. Have everyone lay out their cards in the “To Do” (aka “To Discuss”) column.
  6. Ask them to look for duplicates (where duplicates exist, lay one similar item on top of another), and to clarify, if anything they wrote is unclear to anyone else in the group.
  7. Use “dot voting” to prioritize the topics, i.e., determine which topic to talk about first, second, third … (I prefer to give each person three votes). If there is a tie on the number of votes for any item, you can act as the tie-breaker.
  8. Arrange the topics in priority order (based on the number of dots), and specify how much time you will set aside for the initial conversation on each topic. (I prefer short periods of time, from 90 seconds to several minutes.)
  9. Start the timer, and move the first (highest-priority) topic to the “Doing” (aka “Discussing”) column. Ask for a volunteer to start the conversation. As the end of the timebox approaches, given them at least a 15-second warning.
  10. When time expires, give the group an opportunity to decide whether to keep talking about that topic or to move on to the next one, by asking them to simultaneously give a visual indication, where: a) thumbs-up means “I want to keep talking about this; b) thumbs-sideways means “I am ambivalent about whether to keep talking about this topic or go on to the next topic”; and c) thumbs-down means “I want to go on to the next topic.”
  11. If thumbs-up votes plus thumbs-sideways votes constitute a majority, restart the timer and continue with the same topic.
  12. Repeat Step 10 and Step 11 as many times as necessary until there is a majority thumbs-down vote, at which time, move the current topic to “Done” (aka “Discussed”).
  13. Move the next topic to the “Doing” column, and continue until you are out of time or out of topics.
  14. (optional) Add an “Actions” column to the right of the “Done” column, and for each topic, facilitate a conversation about next steps or Action Items that could be taken, and capture each of those sets of next steps/Action Items on separate cards.
  15. Keep the Lean Coffee board in a visible place (if you have that option) or take a digital picture of it before removing it from the work space.
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