NPR Mocks Starbucks Improvement Efforts, But I Wouldn’t…


Panel Round II: Wait, Wait : NPR

It's unfortunate that NPR's “Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me” show would mock Starbucks and their Lean efforts, as had been somewhat half-documented in the WSJ (and discussed here on this blog). But, I had to admit I chuckled and laughed at the audio that I linked to up top.

They start discussing Starbucks and their use of Mr. Potato Head about two minutes into the clip. The NPR folks took the Mr. Potato Head exercise very literally and someone asked basically, “If they want to do a better job of making coffee drinks, why not practice making coffee????”

The point of exercises like these aren't to develop manual dexterity or anything directly transferable to the actual work itself. It's about demonstrating how a process that “can't be improved upon” (in the minds of staff) can actually be improved if you get creative in your approach to solving problems. I'm sure the Mr. Potato Head exercise is all about developing their brains, not their arms and hands.

There were also some funny quips in the NPR show about making a latte with a foam mustache or a hat… funny.

If you're going to not understand why Starbucks is using Mr. Potato Head (as an eye-opening “what is possible” exercise), you might as well be funny about it, unlike the Gawker blog was with their misguided attempt to claim that Starbucks was turning people into robots.

Like I said in my previous posts, it seems that Starbucks is getting a bad rap through the WSJ's choice of reporting what seems to be just part of their Lean journey. It's amazing, in a way, that it's been a long while since I've an article about “those kooky hospital people are trying to be like Toyota” story. The reaction from the Starbucks Lean efforts tells us we have a lot of educating left to do. Again, I'll point you to John Shook's blog post about Lean and people at Starbucks and what the WSJ missed.

So, in a spirit of admiration for Starbucks' attempts (not in mockery), I have a new mascot at my desk… my morning Starbucks cup turned into a Boston Red Sox Potato Head. He needs a name. Any suggestions?

In a way, he's my reminder that even the most well-intended Lean efforts and culture changes are going to see “weird” to a large part of the general public. This could happen to any of us who aren't working directly in auto parts manufacturing – our Lean efforts could be misperceived by a public who doesn't “think Lean.”

So back to the Potato Head training exercise. I see value in that, done the right way. Do you use similar training exercises like Mr. Potato Head? Stuffing envelopes? Legos? Paper airplanes? How do you find that helpful or effective? If you have an example to share, click the Comments link below the post

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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. Name? Kevin Brew-kilis

    We've done simulations here recently in making clocks. Similar to Starbucks, this doesn't relate directly to our manufacturing process as a coating and converting operation. However, as you mentioned, the exercise is about teaching the principles and giving hands on experience to those folks that haven't been a part of a lean implementation before.

    Ours was incredibly effective at creating a shared understanding of the goals of lean, now it's just about applying it to our operation.

  2. I love the Mr. Potato Head approach just for the fact that you can simply go out and buy it…it's much easier than trying to construct your own demo out of legos or other objects.

    As for NPR, their shortsightedness doesn't surpise me. I listen to them on occasion and their programming comes across as very arrogant and elitist. That's why they laughed when Starbucks used a toy to train employees. They can't connect the dots because they're too focused on the unsophisticated training tool that Starbucks employed.

    As for Starbucks, I applaud their lean efforts. Like many companies they suffered from what I call "organizational arrogance"…thinking that the ways a company operates is superior with little or no room for improvement. This was perfectly exemplified by the Starbucks manager who thought that the process time for customers at her store couldn't possibly be shortened any more.

  3. As a consultant/trainer for the past twenty years I have always found workshop exercises using Legos, Bristle Blocks, Paper Airplanes, etc. to be effective learning methods, especially since they place the focus on concepts. If Starbucks were to use "coffee making" for their simulation exercise participants would be more focused on actual process details instead of the intended learning of NVA waste minimization.

    Ironically, I have used coffee making during SMED workshops.

    Name suggestion: My wife, Jennifer, came up with this…"Lean Bean". We joked the "bean" reference is multi-faceted as it represents not only the coffee beans but also Boston being Beantown…and of course there is a potential for a "beanball" during a Red Sox game!

  4. NPR & funny… two terms that strike me as an oxymoron.

    NPR & unenlightened… those two terms go together, at least as far understanding Lean is concerned.

  5. Ask our employees on two continents what building Lego widgets and paper airplanes have to do with our business and they can tell you: learning to see waste, learning to make changes and apply countermeasures to waste, and developing a common frame of reference for these issues that reaches from Lancaster PA to Bogota Colombia. We'll be doing something on the shop floor and someone will say "…it's like in the lego widget factory…"

    As for the 'Wait, wait' crew – I think they're a hoot. Don't be so sensitive, ladies and gentleman! It's just entertainment. Starbucks is a huge success, the Toyota Production System really works, and it doesn't matter who laughs at either one!

  6. Anon – the Mr. Potato was talked about in the WSJ article that I linked to.

    It seemed like a simulation where you measure how long it takes and then try to improve the process in systematic ways.


  7. I've been looking around for exercises. My audience tends to be software dev / IT types. I've done stuffing envelopes and I know some of our people in the UK have used Lego-based exercises.

    Mr Potato Head actually sounds like something worth trying.

    A Lean/TPS consultancy we've worked with has an exercise with disassembling / re-assembling a go-kart which was very good.

  8. […] As a regular Starbucks customer (especially so when I lived in Boston, a few stories directly above a Starbucks store), I try to follow the company closely, including reading the “Starbucks Gossip” blog from time to time. I’ve posted before about the blog and I’ve written about the Lean efforts in the company (including a discussion of this WSJ story from last year and a post about NPR’s treatment of Lean at Starbucks). […]


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