bored lemur

Courage, Conferences, and Coffee

Today I have for you a hopefully inspirational little anecdote about recognizing wastefulness (muda in Lean terminology) and having the courage and initiative to eliminate it when you see it.  In this particular case, the wastefulness involved waiting for something very important to me personally: coffee.

Conference Coffee For Five Hundred

I’m not sure exactly how many people turned up recently at the wonderful TriAgile 2017 conference in Raleigh, NC, but I can tell you that a lot of them wanted coffee at about the same time.  In between sessions I wandered into the dining area and got in line for the self-service coffee station, which was set up against a wall on a folding banquet table, like this from left to right:

3 big coffee urns / 2 smaller hot water urns (for tea) / coffee cups / coffee accessories / water cups / water urn

I forgot to take a “before” picture, but the key takeaway is that the process went like this:

  1.  Person A (let’s call him Alf) goes to the middle to get a coffee cup.
  2. Alf steps to the left a bit to dispense coffee, but is still sort of blocking the cups.
  3. Person B (let’s call her Beth) waits patiently a few steps away.  She needs a cup for tea.
  4. Alf steps to the right a bit to begin his fiddly process of making his coffee Just Right:  Grab one sugar.  Grab a Splenda.  Tear and dump into cup.  Toss empty packets in tabletop trash bin. Grab two creamers.  Struggle with opening creamers due to obsessively short fingernails (probably a programmer).  Pour creamers.  Put creamers in bin.  Get stirrer. Stir.  Put stirrer in bin. Take a sip before moving because it’s too full now.  But carefully – it’s hot!
  5. Beth experiences the fourth type of waste (Waiting) from an uncomfortably close perspective.  The next session is about to start.
  6. Finally Alf steps away, which allows Beth to get her cup and tea bag, add hot water, and head off to her next conference session.  Luckily for person C (Calvin), Beth drinks her tea plain.

Are you getting annoyed just thinking about this?  I was in a pretty good mood as I watched this happen a few times in front of me, but as I got to the front I couldn’t resist saying to the next person, “Excessive queue lengths … if we were really agile, we’d fix this ourselves.”  I got the sort of laugh I usually get at my bad jokes and he wandered off.  But then I decided to step back about 10 feet and watch the coffee line for a few minutes.  Without fail, each person with non-trivial coffee requirements would block the entire table for a minute or so as the next person quietly and politely waited.  I kept an eye on my phone timer to get an idea of the amount of delay.

None of these people seemed to notice how long this was all taking.  Obviously, this situation called for a hero of sorts.

He’s a Man of Action!

As soon as there was a break in the line, I looked around for a banquet staff member but none were to be found.  But there was a second, tantalizingly empty table just to the right. So I did this:

Optimized coffee station

Ahh … much better.

As you can see, I moved all of the coffee condiments (sweeteners, creamer, and stirrers) out from between the coffee cups and water cups and over to the next table.  What do you suppose happened next?

The next person came up, poured a cup of coffee, glanced around, and happily wandered over to the new table to mix all the extras in.  And the next … and the next.  There was even enough room at table #2 for multiple people to work side by side.  No one questioned the new setup or had seen me make the change, but they moved through the system noticeably faster.  As a bonus, people who needed something simple like water or plain tea or coffee had virtually no wait time.  Hooray!

Be Bold

The surface lesson here is that there’s waste in almost every system and that improvements can often require surprisingly little effort.  But there are more important things to see.  In order to make the process improvement, I had to feel empowered to do so.  I didn’t worry too much about whether the staff would get mad at me; after all I had a good reason for doing what I did. Still, it took a small amount of courage I suppose, and courage is one of the five core Scrum values.  I hope that when you come to work with your agile teams each day, you trust your instincts and feel equally bold about making your team and process better.

Step Outside Yourself

Ok, so I took a small risk and Just Did It.  And yet before I even made the decision I had to notice that something was wrong.  I’d wager that most of the people waiting just accepted a slow line as their destiny for that moment.  We’re all used to waiting in lines, right?  In my case, the idle time spent in line is actually what allowed my mind to wander outside the system I was in and realize how silly it was to just take the current parameters as given.

Now think about your agile teams and whether they are truly taking matters into their own hands when it comes to the various inefficiencies they deal with as they try to complete all the sprint work they’ve undertaken.  In many cases I’ll bet they are surfacing and solving small problems in their retrospectives while the true “elephant” problems persist.  Are they convinced they aren’t allowed to tackle the big ones?  Are they so busy that they don’t even notice?  If they’re always working at or above capacity it may be the latter.

As a coach or leader, encourage brainstorming, outcome visualization and other techniques that put people into the state of mind that’s needed to generate those a-ha moments that really move teams to greater efficiency.

Perfect for a While

After all that, I’m sorry to have to tell you that eventually afternoon snacks arrived and needed to go on the second table, so the event staff moved the coffee stuff back to where it was.  I think it survived at least an hour though.  And of course this is a solved problem in general – go into any decent coffee shop and they’ll have the coffee urns together on one counter and there’s a totally separate counter for putting other stuff into the coffee.  It’s obvious when you pay attention – systems thinking, right?

Thanks for reading – see you next time!


Leave a Comment