Lean Coffee: a meeting technique used worldwide

Written by Sarah Spitz, on 08 November 2019


Seattle, 2009. Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith, both Lean coaches, want to create a discussion group around Lean practices. But they’re not really excited by the thought of setting up a schedule, coordinating speakers, managing topics lists and participants.
That’s where the creativity of being lazy kicks in: they figured out how to guarantee a high-quality group talk without dealing with all the logistics. Sounds interesting, right?

They had a very simple idea: ask the participants to choose the topics to be discussed and make them vote.

So how does it work? Well, the meeting has its own Kanban made up of 5 columns: Ready, Doing, Done, Epiphanies, To Do.

Before the discussion starts, the facilitator asks each participant to fill in the meeting Kanban by writing down on post-it notes the topics they think should be addressed during the meeting. This shouldn’t take more than 3 minutes. Then, each participant quickly explains their topic to the others and gradually adds them to the "Ready" column of ideas on topics to be discussed.

When all the ideas have been presented, the first vote takes place: each participant is given 2 voting points that can be distributed as he/she wishes on the post-its. The most voted idea is moved to the "Doing" column and becomes the first topic of discussion.

This first subject is discussed for 8 minutes. When time is up, participants return to a vote, this time by show of hands, to determine whether 8 more minutes should be dedicated to the first topic, or whether to move on to the 2nd topic that received the most votes at the beginning of the session. If they decide to change the subject, the first one goes to the "Done" column and the 2nd most popular subject moves to "Doing". And so on!

Agendas are so 20th century - Jim Benson, co-founder of Lean Coffee

Two other columns are very useful for this Kanban, which is until now, let’s admit it, classic. The "Epiphanies" column gathers the ideas expressed during the meeting, takeaways and insights that participants have brought out. The "To Do" column, on the other hand, already points to an action plan. The goal isn’t necessarily to generate ideas: not every meeting is intended to be a brainstorming session. But, if ideas did emerge by accident, wouldn’t it be a shame to lose them?

So here it is: since they were originally meetings about Lean practices, they kept the word "Lean", and since this first meeting took place in a café, they added the word Coffee. They quite naturally coined the term "Lean Coffee" for this practice.

Ten years later, we find that Lean Coffees are held weekly in Seattle, and others have been created around the world. This practice is also sometimes found in teams within large companies, such as BNP Paribas. It has the advantage of not requiring any prior preparation and it gives the opportunity for a much broader and more representative possibility of subjects for all participants. From now on, it is no longer the meeting organizer who decides the agenda, but the participants who determine what is the most essential topic for them all, at this date and time. Jim Benson, one of the designers of this technique, believes that it allows for calmer, more focused participants with fewer interruptions.