Controversy over New Standardized Work at Some Starbucks Stores


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).

Starbucks Gossip recently had a post that mentioned their new “standardized work” (if you will) for making espresso drinks (at least at some stores) and it's worth some analysis and discussion here, I think. This new approach is called the “Beverage Repeatable Routine” (or BR2).

The original comment that was post was the following, from a barista:

Am I the only one that finds the new espresso drink preparation absolutely ridiculous? How is this supposed to increase speed of service? Doesn't Starbucks know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? Now I'm starting at the ride side of my machine, moving to my left, and then going back to the right. Yes, very efficient. And what was wrong with using two partners on the bar again? OH wait, we're just doing this so we can cut labor again, most likely. If you seriously mean to tell me you can serve 80 customers in 30 minutes (our current average during peak) with one person on bar using this ridiculous method, I'm going to blatantly call you a liar.

There was an immediate response from another barista who wasn't nearly so negative:

There are some positive aspects to the new system. I still disagree with it mostly, but the idea of steaming milk, syrup, and pull shots in that order works quite well and can increase speed of service for those that aren't as comfortable on bar. For those of us who have been at Starbucks long enough to know the bar well, it slows us down to focus on only two drinks at a time. But, I too disagree with it.

That led to another blog post that featured the new drink making system, where a barista said this (in part):

While I was training on this, I improved my time a bit over “old ways” but also had a much less hectic time on bar. Another trainee actually gained itme, but his drinks went from horribly made to perfectly made and his time at bar was cool, calm, and collected.

Calm, cool, and collected. Better quality. Less hectic. Oh, and faster… that sounds like Lean to me. I've seen this many times in hospital settings. People are often afraid that a Lean environment will be stressful and quality will suffer… but, for example, a Lean hospital laboratory is a much calmer place because when turnaround times improve the phones no longer ring off the hook all the time because nurses aren't calling to ask “where's our test result?”

Another barista wrote:

My take on the BR2 is that it levels the playing field for all partners so there is a consistency in production, resulting in consistent bevs.

This is good for me, the customer – more consistent drinks. I normally drink black bold roast coffee (oh how I miss the Clover machine from Boston), but my wife is an espresso drink customer and she often mentions how the drinks are inconsistent from store to store and even day to day. Lean can help fix that, apparently, and create more time for interacting with customers (much as Lean in a hospital creates time for caring interactions with patients).

Another barista commented:

They are attempting (and will succeed) in lowering the standard deviations in beverage quality. More baristas will produce more drinks with fewer errors more often.

They continued:

What will really open your eyes to the way things are now is by doing a Go See of your current bev quality. Most of the drinks that are made with ‘batched' milk are under temp (or over temp) and watery (improperly textured milk).

Expect most store operations to come under Lean management, i.e., routines/repeatable routines soon. I honestly love it because it suits my OCD personality type to a T.

I'll take a bit of exception to the “OCD” part, but pay attention how they focus on quality improvement with the new standardized drink-making process.

Again, they continued:

What is hardest is letting everyone know that we are starting over. You weren't fast on your first day on bar when you were hired, so don't expect to be fast when you start using the standardized work method. It takes time. That's why they're rolling out the milk routine first, to make it easier.

Again, this seems to be a very common Lean thread – the learning curve. What's ultimately better isn't always easier at first. The process may get worse, temporarily and you have to fight through that. Otherwise, if you give up too quickly, you'll miss out on the improvement opportunity.

That barista finishes their comment with a bit of unfortunate “command and control” mindset:

Also, it's an easy way to weed out the partners in the store who refuse to take direction and can endanger your business by not following other procedures. I catch you not using BR2 more than once? You're gone.

When you “catch” people not following the standardized work, firing them after two times isn't the Lean approach, I'd argue. That's a time for more coaching and more time spent explaining why. Sure, eventually you might have to discipline a person for not following the process, but firing them shouldn't be your first instinct.

Another barista commented:

This system the bar area is always clean, pitchers are always rinsed, there is NEVER milk residue on your steam wands, shots never expire and there should be almost no mistakes.

Again, as a customer, this all sounds positive.

So with all of the positive comments, it then turned negative with this comment (reprinting in part):

LEAN has always been and always will be a bunch of crock made up by people who don't understand what made the SBUX popular in its heyday. It was never perfect drinks that drove the brand — it was good-enough drinks and happy, friendly baristas that kept customers coming back at record paces.

LEAN ignores this by trying to make everything in the store automated. Eventually there will be no need for baristas as customers can mobile pay and the Mastrena 2.0 will make the beverage for them. If it has to be written in the Frappuccino training and Beverage repeatable routine to connect with the customer, obviously there's something wrong. As in, exactly what have we been teaching since day 1? Make faces at the customer? Spit in their drink?

That barista also writes “LEAN is dumb.”

Another comment said:

Yep; still going to use two machines. You cannot ROBOTIZE people. People are the ones who know the routine is STUPID and will work against it, people have COMMON SENSE. That's what you want, not robots! (Cuz if you had robots, there would be no “just say yes” cuz the darn things would explode!

I would hope any Lean environment would not be “robotize” (is that a word?) people. In hospitals, I've heard people literally say “I feel like a robot” in a traditional non-Lean environment. Why? Because they ran automated machines and nobody was engaging them in continuous improvement.

A truly Lean culture (not one that just uses cherry-picked Lean tools) respects people and engages them in continuous improvement. If Starbucks has a new standardized method, I'd hope it was developed by experienced baristas and taught to other baristas by baristas. The challenge with Starbucks, that's fascinating to me, is that you have 4,000 little coffee drink factories – if people aren't robots, the challenge is what to do with an improvement generated at ONE location. How do you share it with all of the other locations? That's quite a communication challenge.

Another barista jumped to the defense of Lean, somewhat referencing a famous quote: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” Henry Ford

To all of the naysayers… you are right. this WILL NOT WORK in your store. why? because partners like you will not give it a chance. As for my store, this repeatable routine rolled out (in my area) over a year ago, and if a barista doesn't follow this routine, I write them up for not following policy.

THIS WORKS. Trust me, I was a holdout among partners when this rolled out and I have seen it increase our SWS, order accuracy, and barista morale. When you do it right, you have enough time to keep your bar clean, your pitchers rinsed, your customers happy, and yourself calm. =)

Does a Lean “mathematically calculated” (as another commenter put it) store “have no soul”? Or does a Lean coffee shop create more time (by eliminating waste) to have more soulful interaction with customers? Personally, I don't go to Starbucks for interaction, but I like it when the baristas have the time to say hi and get to know your name (and vice versa… like the awesome barista Jason from Boston).

Another comment that caught my eye was this one:

Most stores are designed to be visually pleasing and not functional. Ive worked in many different layouts and have noticed the layouts are actually getting worse as they get newer. Things are spread too far apart, with a pitcher rinser a good 15 feet from the bar, counters so low we cannot fit a trash can anyplace. I once worked at a store that used recycle bins as trash cans. They actually designed a store without a place to put a trash can on the floor.

If Starbucks is truly embracing Lean, maybe functionality will become more of a concern, designing stores to be efficient in their layout, not just to look pretty.

It's interesting to follow this from afar via the internet. I would hope that Starbucks is embracing the “respect for people” principle of Lean in addition to engineering a better process. Given the coaching they have been getting from John Shook, I would strongly assume he is emphasizing this, not just raw efficiency.

There were more comments, on both sides of things. To summarize: some baristas think the new system is great, some aren't impressed (because they say they were already making drinks that way), and some hate it. Might sound familiar?

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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. Sounds like the new approach is, to a significant extent, about batch size reduction, with all the benefits (quality, cost, delivery) but, also, all the expected resistance. Batch size reduction almost always goes against the grain for some cultural/evolutionary/neurological reason!

    My question would be: What frame of reference are these baristas given so the can see and appreciate the positive effects of batch size reduction, rather than just having it imposed out of the blue? Given an hour, a tub of legos and a good teacher they might be better prepared.

  2. I read this post while drinking my morning starbucks and composing an email to hospital staff on the benefits of the Lean philosophy – which truly is collaborative continuous improvement led by front-line staff and supported by management. To Mark’s point – I hope the new starbucks “b2b” was developed by experienced baristas and taught to other baristas by baristas… I count on the friendly Boston starbucks coffee makers everyday.. For organizational change to work all staff must have equal and ample opportunity to contribute ideas, suggestions and feedback.

    Good post. Thanks.

    • Ernest, glad to hear your hospital is pursuing that path of collaborative continuous improvement. There’s a bunch of hospitals that are just imposing somewhat trivial lean tools in a top-down way… so good luck with your efforts!

    • As a barista at Starbucks the routine has it’s benefits. But when designed by someone who NEVER worked his life behind a bar has no clue what kind of vibe you get when your knocking out drinks.

  3. I would really like to better understand their method for implementing this standard work across sites. The resistance sounds normal, but it also sounds like they may be missing improvement ideas if this standardized work is unchanging. It would be quite the challenge to implement standardized work accross sites, because for standardized work to be an improving standard management needs to have some of the lean and improvement mind-set instead of comand, audit, and control mindset. Getting that mind-set really is one of the biggest challenges with any lean change. Like You mentioned, they have the additional communication challenge of having 1000’s of small factories. It will be interesting to follow starbucks’ implementation methodologies, it could be a great learning experience for all of us whether it goes good or bad. Starbucks co-presented with a well known lean leader at the Shingo Conference in 2009 and it was quite interesting to hear what they are doing.

  4. Wow. I think there is a huge disconnect between management and the baristas if the baristas think that creating a consistently high-quality product is less important than chit chatting with customers. Frankly, my Starbucks experiences would not lead me to consider them friendly or chatty (snobbily schooled in coffee nomenclature repeatably). After that, a poorly-made drink is just icing on the cake of a bad experience.

    • I hear what you’re saying, KeAnne. When I was a “regular” at the story in Boston, it was nice chit-chatting with the same people, but not all of them were friendly and they’re certainly not always friendly when you’re a one-time customer popping into a random store.

      I’d bet there are two distinct types of starbucks customers – those who are interested in that barista interaction and those who just want a high-quality drink fast. Seems like the process should accommodate that (and get rid of that snobbiness that happens when you order the drink incorrectly).

  5. Based on the reactions, this might be some really good Industrial Engineering, not lean, at Starbucks. Hearing about redesigning a process in one thing. It will sound more like lean when I read about the changes in store management or real kaizen efforts (and I mean continuous improvement, not week-long events).

  6. Mark,
    There’s two article topics I can’t resist–football and coffee.
    Just a few thoughts.
    First is that the disconnect seems to be on the goals. There was no mention on what the targets were in quality, delivery time, or productivity. I find that is one of the biggest unmentioned hangups about Lean. Very few people argue that there should be an effort to be good or to improve, but many would argue about what a reasonable size of improvement is.
    Second point–some of the baristas hit on a good point. A standard used in many locations requires a consistent layout across those locations. The process, to be most effective, should be adjusted to match the stores, but followed within those stores.
    Third, the definition of quality is complicated. It can mean ‘conformance to spec’ which is what the process delivers, or ‘grade’, as in high-end vs low-end, which is what the customer interactions deliver. It doesn’t seem clear to the baristas how Starbucks wants to compete.
    Finally, I love the idea of people within a company having a forum to chat about its issues. I hope the management team is listening.

    Great post, Mark.

    Jeff Hajek

  7. I think Brandon is on to something… We don’t know how they are communicating this across sites. If a small group determines the best processes and then it is issued as an edict to the rest of the stores without room for contribution/discussion, then it’s command and control. If I’m a Starbucks employee in Boston and Seattle is telling me how to do this without any of my input then it’s definitely “check your brain at the door.” Perhaps what’s needed is a little autonomy as long as they are continuously improving the process and can prove that a new method is better than the current standardized work…

  8. I am surprised how often the baristas mention Lean on the site. I am a Starbucks regular and I have had people ask what I do. When I mention that I help my hospital with Lean just like Starbucks is doing, they don’t know what Lean is. And I live in Seattle near HQ! Maybe they have rebranded Lean into a Starbucks Production System or something and therefore Lean isn’t recognizable. Yet they refer to it on the site.

    I am an ex-Partner and was a shift supervisor. One of the prevailing attitudes was “CORPORATE” creates the process and then forces them to follow it. Even if the new process was created by other baristas, maybe their past change mangement and implementation practices left a lingering sting on those who do the work.

    I also echo some of the commenters that a standard may not work in all settings. With rounding, we have elements that are the same across the house but some differences based on patient and team needs.

    Are the local supervisors and managers treating the new process as an experiment? Do they have the autonomy to experiment and improve drink delivery in their stores or must they wait until a new integration comes down from other stores improvements?

    Is the local leadership trained in change managment? They may not have the skills to communicate and help with the baristas who feel “done to”.

    Lastly, I wonder if the new process accounts for variation in demand. My store used to get HUGE drink orders for meetings during rush. If you have 10 customers in line PLUS 25 drinks for an order that is coming in any minute, how does the single barista meet demand with new process. Is flexing alowed or is that a violation of the standard?

  9. I have never trusted blog comments so I am hesitant to believe who is actually writing them. I have been to many Starbucks across the country and never heard any barista say “They are attempting (and will succeed) in lowering the standard deviations in beverage quality”. Standard Deviation? Who talks this way? Management of course. The people at the counter are more interested in what concerts are coming up, what’s for dinner, or their significant other – not standard deviation (unless they really don’t have a life).

    Management have always have their “AKA” identities and refute when employees get emotional on these blogs. Conspiracy Theory phobia? perhaps but when observed, it becomes fact.

    With that aside – the more important question here is if STBX is selling a product or building (maintaining) an image. Its like H Davidson – they tell you up front that you are not buying a motorcyle but buying an image.

    If the is the case, then is STBX taking the “human” out of it store by replacing them with Robo-Baristas. I am sure there is more to this than what we are reading. More or less the company has looked in the mirror and made a decision.

    People resist change – we all know that and in six months, this will be an after thought or they will revert to their old ways or in the true spirit of lean – come up with a better way altogether.

    Not dissing lean – I am a trememdous fan but does it work for everything? Certainly not…. just like a hammer does not work to smooth dry wall putty. So if the human interaction is really being taken out of the equation, is it working? Got to go – I have tickets to the Pixies tonight and need to get some work done –

    • @ Jim — Who is to say lean is about turning anyone into “robo” anything in any setting? Lean is a very human system and lean environments, from my experience, are far more humane and do a better job of engaging the employees in being human. Having a standardized process doesn’t have to turn people into robots. Now if it’s traditional “command and control” management trying to “do lean” then they might have that effect.

      My understanding is that Starbucks is trying to eliminate waste to:

      1) Improve the quality and consistency of drinks
      2) Free up barista time so they can be face-to-face with customers more instead of running around finding things
      3) Reducing cost by not wasting as much brewed coffee

      The leap to assume that Lean “doesn’t apply” or that it would automatically turn people to robots is a leap I wouldn’t make.

      Do I have my reservations that Starbucks is “rolling out” this new process in a very top-down way? Sure. And if that’s true, I’d suggest that’s a Starbucks failing not a Lean failing.

      Thanks for your comment, hope you enjoyed the Pixies ;-)

      • 2) Free up barista time so they can be face-to-face with customers more instead of running around finding things

        BRR has some advantages, but honestly, freeing up barista’s time… there is no such thing.

        First of all, lets face the reality. As a barista I don’t “connect” always with every customer. Company would like me to do it, but in reality it is not possible (I either work on the drink or talk to a customer, if I start doing these two things at the same time half of the drinks will be wrong), not every customer wants it, or it is physically impossible as customer is busy talking to other customer or talking on the phone. However, having let’s say four tall lattes to make the old way I was able to pour milk to two jugs, steam them at the same time using two espresso machines and prepare four cups on the machines to receive espresso shots. After that, while milk was steaming I had lots of free time to either start working on next drinks (put syrups, fill up jugs with milk, clean dirty jugs) or have a small talk with customers at the hand off point. When milk and shots were ready I would fill up cups and give away drinks. Mission accomplished. With the new way (BRR) I have to waste lots of time on cleaning or filling jugs up with milk (four jugs instead of two as I am required to steam milk for each drink separately), cleaning steam wand four times instead of two times, etc. The spare time instead of being one long period during steaming lots of milk together what allowed me to have a chat with customers or do other job is now divided into four very short periods of spare time which are not really useful for anything. During the training session they showed us a video of new system at work and despite constantly repeted message of “and connect with a customer” as a one of the main steps of BRR the barista on the video was not doing it. And he was supposed to be an example for us. Why he wasn’t doing it? Because BRR takes away his time for that. BRR takes away this time by not allowing us to do “batch processing” (I need to f… with every drink separately, even though I am perfectly able of making two drinks at the same time and making them properly), by taking away another barista from bar 2 position and by not allowing me to use another espresso machine. Yes, BRR equalize time gaps between drinks serving, yes, the quality at some point is better and yes it cuts time of drinks production for baristas who are not smart enough to develop efficient way of working by themselves. But it definitely does not free up any of my time and definitely does not give me more time to connect with a customer – this is just a wishful thinking if not even a lie. With BRR I can’t allow to distract myself by a chit-chat with a customer as I constantly have to control what is going on with the espresso machine and swap items “like for like” so I don’t fall out of the routine.

  10. I can’t imagine how any employee can rationalize being “good-enough” on product quality and blame Lean for not keeping customers happy. A crappy or inconsistent product will never motivate customers to come back, no matter how good the service, the conversation with your barista, or the free wi-fi.

    Having worked at Toyota, I am conditioned to believe that we can persuade all employees to embrace Lean over time. But those are the by-product of very unique circumstances, especially, a greenfield operation that allows team members to be screened for fit.

    In a brownfield Lean transformation, the reality is that not everyone will be on board, and no matter how hard you try, the buy-in may not occur. As one of my post-Toyota senseis told me, “Not everyone will be able to make the journey.”

    I agree with Mark, firing that person should never be a supervisor’s first, or even, second reaction. But sometimes addition by subtraction improves the team dynamics and allows the organization to move forward.

    This is a subtle, different perspective than those who would advocate using large-scale layoffs in conjunction with Lean. Not everyone is suited to work in a Lean environment, and sometimes you’re better off moving forward with the ones who are.

  11. Mark,

    we’ve written a couple of times about Lean in Starbucks and we get many people looking for info (via search engine stats) on the work there. However we considered whether we could add anything to this post and decided the best thing we could do for our readers was to promote your blog to them and let them read about first hand customer experiences of the lean implementation.

    So you can see the blog post, we’ve put up here – hope you don’t mind.


  12. On a somewhat related topic (of “Is Starbucks using lean tools or trying to be a lean enterprise?”) Starbucks is (as they’ve done before) using labor costs as an excuse for raising prices:

    Raw coffee prices have been rising. Starbucks said on Wednesday that it has absorbed the higher prices until now, but no more. It said the price increases will be focused on big and labor-intensive drinks. It didn’t say which drinks, or how much.

    Most of its basic coffee and espresso drink prices will stay the same or even drop in some cases, including its $1.50 tall brewed coffee.

    Starbucks isn’t following Toyota/Lean principles of pricing to the market. If your labor or material costs go up, you are NOT entitled to automatically raise your prices – you have to price to what your customers are willing to pay. If you want to keep you margin the same, then find ways to reduce costs, don’t just go raising prices.

  13. I am a Batista and have worked for Starbucks for 5 years. 3 in Canada 2 in the uk and have recently come back to Canada where this beverage repeatable is in place. At first I thought this is stupid I have a system and they want to change it. I can make 6 drinks is under 3 min and so I feel as tho I’m being lazy as I’m waiting for the shots to pour there are other things I could be doing like utilizing the bar next to me. But at the same time. I can connect with customers a lot more because I don’t have to Focus on too much. I am working on my speed and accuracy so that I can be faster. But another thing that worries me is the standards of the drink quality isn’t the best because your espresso shots are being left longer than 10 seconds at a time before they have been saved and I have noticed this taste change in my drinks. I think that could be worked on and maybe who knows as u get better at the repeatable ur shots won’t be waiting.


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