A Defense of Lean and of Lean at Starbucks


Yesterday's WSJ front page headline caught my eye, as a frequent Starbucks customer and obvious Lean zealot:

Latest Starbucks Buzzword: ‘Lean' Japanese Techniques

The headline is full bodied and complex brew that gives us a lot to chew on before we even get to the frothy body of the article itself (not to mention the lingering aftertaste of internet reaction).

“Buzzword” — Uh oh. Is Lean just a buzzword at Starbucks or is the WSJ just portraying it that way? Digging into the details, John Shook (formerly of Toyota and now with the Lean Enterprise Institute) is advising them. I haven't talked to John about Starbucks, but I seriously doubt he would be involved with something that was just buzzwords. “Buzzword” makes Lean sound like just another program of the month. I hope not.

The WSJ typically gets it wrong about Lean-related topics, as I've blogged about and complained about before in four previous posts. So, I'm willing to assume Starbucks might be on the wrong track and the WSJ is portraying it wrong (starting in the headline!)

“Japanese” — For Pete's sake, can we quit calling Lean a Japanese system??? Is the Wall Street Journal still stuck in 1981 when people in Detroit (and DC) smashed Toyotas? Lean has spread successfully around the world and has been embraced not just by Toyota in the U.S. (and France, even!), but pretty much every industry, including healthcare providers around the world. Lean is associated with Toyota, of course, but Lean has its roots in Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Henry Ford among others.

Calling Lean “Japanese” is sort of like calling pizza “Italian food.”

So I tried not judging an article by its headline. What's the meat of the WSJ piece? First paragraph:

Starbucks Corp. built its business as the anti-fast-food joint. Now, the recession and growing competition are forcing the coffeehouse giant to see the virtues of behaving more like its streamlined competitors.

Excuse me, has anyone ever unearthed McDonald's using Lean methods or thinking Lean? Which unnamed competitors exactly?

Taylorism or Lean (Toyota-ism)?

This is off to a bad start. True Lean thinkers think of it as being a method for engaging the entire workforce in continuous improvement. Far too often, though, the general public might associate Lean with Taylorist tomfoolery, such as “efficiency experts” from corporate lording over worker bees with stopwatches and top-down improvements. Fast food has more of an association with top-down Taylorism, not real Lean, don't you think? When the WSJ wrote about Starbucks and their efficiency experts in 2005, it didn't sound like Lean to me. It sounded like “leave your brain at the door” Taylorism.

Still, some baristas fear the drive will turn them into coffee-making automatons and take away some of the things that made the chain different.

At my currently-local Starbucks store in Boston, the employees already look, mostly, like disgruntled automatons. There aren't many smiles. When your drink is ready, they pretty much slam it on the counter without making eye contact with anyone. It's not the usual Starbucks experience.

These are not happy, engaged employees focused on customers. Or so it appears.

And this is the state of things, without Lean, we should ask “why?” Really, the store managers and Starbucks leadership chain should ask “why?” Are they not listened to? Is there too much waste, so employees are overworked and they don't have the time to really take care of customers?

Engagement or Automaton-ization?

If Starbucks is truly embracing Lean, employees really shouldn't fear becoming an automaton. The idea comes up again later in the article:

Starbucks has faced some resistance to the program. “They're trying to turn workers into robots,” says Erik Forman, a barista in Minneapolis. “It's going to essentially turn the cafe into a factory. They want to control our every move in order to pinch every possible penny.”

Of course, the Starbucks VP of Lean, Scott Heydon (who knew they had one), discounts that idea, as does John Shook, pointing out that Lean is about getting ideas from those who do the work. Those of you who visited here with an anti-Lean bias, please read those quotes (if you're even still reading this). And see this quote about how Toyota engages people.

Robots…. turning us into a factory…. this sounds A LOT like what we always hear in healthcare. That's not the case when Lean is successful in hospitals and it shouldn't be the case at Starbucks either. We're not trying to turn anyone into a factory – Lean isn't all about moving assembly lines and “andon cords.” Everyone likes to say “we're different,” as I recently wrote about here.

One of my classic stories from healthcare was being told by a medical laboratory technologist “I feel like a robot.” This was BEFORE anything Lean had been done. She complained that her work had gotten very automated over the last 25 years and she was like a robot because nobody (management) never asked her what she thought — about anything.

Lean, of course, takes things in the opposite direction. Start thinking, identify waste, implement your ideas to make things better.

Lean makes you LESS like a robot, if management has the right mindset and they are able to give up top-down control of every little detail. If your organization has a tradition of command and control behavior, any change is going to make employees fear more top-down B.S.

But, the actions have to match the language.

Now, baristas are required to grind beans for each batch and timers buzz every eight minutes to signal when it's time to make new coffee.

Required? Is there any room for variation in this process? The WSJ wrote about this new coffee brewing method back in June. The goal is a good one — making sure customers always get what they want (meet demand) while having minimal wasted excess coffee (keeping cost low).

The WSJ described it as:

Currently, baristas decide when to brew fresh batches “based on multiple signals ranging from demand (quantity), to expiration and timing,” the new documents say, explaining that the revamped process “reduces this complexity by eliminating many of these signals.”

Now, depending on how busy a store is at a particular time, baristas will use 24-, 12- or eight-minute “cadences” to brew coffee so that no variety runs out.

Now I can't say which process is better, not being a barista. There was A LOT of complaining about the new method on the “Starbucks Gossip” blog where disgruntled baristas tend to hang out online.

There could be one of two problems here:

  1. The new method is NOT really better (and it's being forced on Starbucks “partners”)
  2. The new method IS better and it's just not being explained well to the partners

Either way, if something is clearly better and people have been trained properly — they'll adopt it. What's the problem behind the problem with the new method?

The way Starbucks handles this will speak volumes about their approach. Is it top-down Taylorism (“we figured this out, it's right, you MUST brew every 8 minutes!!”) or Lean with employee participation (“8 minutes is probably right, but you can use your judgment within these boundaries… or come up with a better way”). I was taught that, in the Toyota mindset, if you MUST give a directive, it's the leader's job to explain “why” and make sure the employees understand. You must very rarely rely on your “because I'm the boss” formal authority.
Cost Cutting or Total System Improvement?

Back to the barista, quoted above. He also sounds afraid that Lean is just another cost-cutting program. I hear that in hospitals all the time. Lean is about improving processes, identifying customer value and providing it more effectively — better quality and lower cost. The two pillars of the Toyota “house” are basically flow and quality. They go hand in hand.

When costs go down at Toyota or a hospital that's implementing Lean, it's the END RESULT of improved quality and better flow. This is not cost-cutting in a traditional sense.

Waste of Motion

There are plenty of examples of waste in the article — focused on wasted motion for employees. You can see this type of waste in your local Starbucks any morning.

Syrups aren't stored in a good location — too far from where the espresso drinks are made. Partners have to bend down to get beans from underneath a cabinet. People are running back and forth too much when putting supplies away.

This wasted motion doesn't serve the customer effectively. It increases costs because it increases required labor time. It harms customer service because a minute spent running around to get soy milk from an inconvenient place is a minute not spent interacting with a customer in a friendly way. Plus, labor cost is a big proportion of Starbucks' total cost, so it's the right “top down” direction to try to help reduce that. Top down direction is appropriate in a Lean model, but the ideas for how to execute and reach the goals need to come from the people who do the work.

Parallels to Healthcare

Believe it or not, this reminds me of the Lean focus with nurses in hospitals. If a nurse is only able to spend 33% of their time with patients (a number that comes up very consistently in different studies around the world and in my own Lean work), that's bad for patient satisfaction and quality of healthcare outcomes.

Organizations like Virgina Mason have nearly DOUBLED the amount of time that nurses can devote to patient care. This is done by making sure supplies, equipment, medication, and information are never missing — making sure the processes and systems SUPPORT the nurses so they can take care of patients.

That could be a part of the Starbucks formula, even if the stakes are lower.

Better Processes = Less Waste = Lower Cost and Better Service

In my hospital Lean work, there are two areas of focus — staff observation AND patient flow observation. Starbucks seems to be focusing on the staff side, which is OK. But, they should make sure they are also focusing on the customer value side of things, not just waste reduction.

Another issue left uncovered in the WSJ article — what happens when Starbucks improves efficiency? Will *all* of the time go to better service? Taking care of more customers? Will Starbucks make a “no layoffs as a result of Lean” pledge as many hospitals have done (like Theda Care, Virginia Mason, and Avera McKennan)? If partners are fearful for their jobs, they are unlikely to participate in waste reduction and process improvement. I'm sure Starbucks turnover is relatively high. It's more acceptable to not replace or backfill partners who naturally leave, IF the process is truly more efficient as the result of Lean.

What about Customer Needs and Value?

Another question that the article beds: Is Starbucks meeting customer needs in terms of product and waiting time? How is product quality and service quality? Quality can improve because of Lean operations (more consistent drink prep and more time for customer service), but you can't come up with the whole picture by just following the staff with stopwatches. Lean should start with the customer, not just the worker. Maybe the article didn't cover that part of the equation, or Starbucks is being completely employee focused.

Final Thoughts

One final thought on the staff observation — I wouldn't have the Lean person from corporate holding the stopwatch. No matter how nice you are and how much you're asking partners for input, this is intimidating. When I worked with hospitals, I teach the nurses (or medical technologists) to do the observation and time study themselves. This way, it's more peer to peer. Starbucks could maybe adopt this same approach. Just an idea.

I'm raising some issues and maybe being critical, but again, to summarize, I'd guess that Starbucks has the right idea and is headed in the right direction if John Shook is involved. It may take time, but I'd guess Starbucks is on the right track if they can influence enough people fast enough.

That's enough for today… over the weekend, I'll write another blog post focusing on the “interwebs” reaction to the story and how much misinformation or misperception there is about what Lean and TPS are really about… and we can discuss why that's the case. When people fear Lean, it's often because they have only been around “L.A.M.E.” For now, you can check out the reader comments on the WSJ article. That's one of the things I'll comment on in my upcoming post.

What were your reactions to the Starbucks story?

Jon Miller (from the Pacific Northwest) also blogged about this today.

Part 2 of my discussion is here, about how Lean does NOT turn people into robots.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. "……They want to control our every move in order to pinch every possible penny."……"

    Observing the move was Fred Taylor. Observing, criticizing and changing the move was Frank Gilbreth, who gets my vote for the true scoundrel.

    Good post. You went kinda easy on old Fred in this one.

  2. Thanks, Rearden. I believe the defects are fixed. Should have a link to a free version of the article. I tested this by logging out of WSJ and was still able to read.

  3. When you understand the history of Lean the word "Lean" makes perfect sense. However for those who do not have that understanding, the connotation of the word "Lean" is misleading. We need a better word or phrase to continually avoid having to explain why people have a mistaken conception.

  4. My UBT – you are right. I think that's why "best practice" in healthcare is to NOT put lean in the title of your initiative:

    -ThedaCare Improvement System
    -Excellence in Service and Process (Avera McKennan)
    -Michigan Quality System (U of M hospital)

    You can explain that you're using lean thinking. But "lean" is a bad word for posters and promotions. And this is coming from a guy whose book is titled "Lean Hospitals"

    But the subtitle sends a message: "Improving Quality, Patient Safety and Employee Satisfaction"

    It's not "Lean Hospitals: Make Obscene Profits by Turning Workers into Robots"

  5. Starbucks may be new to "lean" but they have been practicing the principles of continuous improvement for a while. A couple of years ago I interviewed for a position as a CI Manager at one of their roasting plants (didn't get it, but oh well…). During the interview process I learned a lot about their mindset and how they were trying to change and improve not only the product, but the entire process.

  6. Great Article you have here. Strangely enough I have experience with both lean and being a Barista for 5 years during school. Like you had mentioned, there is so much waste in the process of preparing drinks and making coffee. Everything is always in a location that takes time away from being in front of the customer. I suspect some of the resistance from the starbucks employees may also have to do with the culture of the company. The cafe I worked in was always trying to improve the way things were done; without even knowing of the concept of lean. It was not until I had conducted a study and started to implement 5 S techniques that they actually figured out what Lean was.

    I am very interested to see the continued efforts at Starbucks.

    I still like Dunkin Donuts coffee better :)

  7. Curious. Why does the barista need to be increase the time in front of the customer? Especially if that barista has the responsibility to whip up whatever concoction the customer ordered.

    Somehow, I really don't have much interest in watching someone do all of that in front of me. Tossing pizza? Maybe. Foaming up a latte? Nah.

  8. I was a shift supervisor for Starbucks a few years ago. My store's baristas stated most improvements were dictated by corporate and felt that the engineers had no store experience. I sincerly hope their Lean efforts do not follow their previous model.

    I want to point out that I love your phrase of peer-to-peer time studies and observations. While I practice this, I love the phrasing of it!

  9. Here is a free Yahoo Finance link to the story:


    To Rearden – I think the customer service aspect is being able to make eye contact and interact with the customer a bit more, at least to look friendly.

    Unlike some customers, Starbucks is not my "third place." I'm not looking to make friends with the baristas.

    But a smile and a pleasant demeanor seems hard to come by when people are struggling in a very inefficient process.

  10. There's a much more fundamental problem. CEO Howard Schultz has been publicly lamenting the demise of Starbucks as a quality brand ever since his infamous Valentine's Day memo in 2007. Since he's identified the overwhelming reliance of growth and scale on automation, superautomatic espresso machines, and the factory production of what was considered a quality brand.

    So how does he combat this image? By publicly stating they will invest in the same factory techniques as Toyota in manufacturing more cups of coffee more efficiently.

    Am I the only person who sees this bizarre behavior?

  11. Here is a must read blog post from the Lean Enterprise Institute's own John Shook — he has coached Starbucks and was mentioned in the WSJ Piece:


  12. I saw a job posting for a Senior VP for a major retail chain that said:

    "Build new program to streamline operations and reduce costs to free staff for more customer care (I am way over simplifying) . person can't just be a technician but somebody who can build new programs and execute."

    There is that same theme of using lean to free up time for better customer service, although some of you won't believe that.


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