Coffee Shop Kaizen: Why Every Mug Doesn’t Need a Spoon (Every Customer is Unique!)


In the Lean methodology, we discuss problem-solving and continuous improvement. How much time should we spend distinguishing between the problems we can solve, the problems we should solve, and the problems we must solve? I bet many of you are trying to figure that out in your organizations.

I was in my hometown of Livonia, Michigan over the weekend visiting friends and family. Don't ask about the football game I was so excited about. Apparently it's a jinx for a blogger to blog about their team. No, I'm not understanding cause and effect. My team just got whupped.

Monday morning, I met with a woman, Donna, who has a dual role with the Livonia Public Schools and the City of Livonia, focused on Lean and process improvement in operations and services.

Jeff Fuchs is a Lean consultant who is organizing the Mid-Atlantic Lean Conference that I'm attending in November. He has previously done some pro-bono work with the school district. While I've just visited twice as an interested alum, Jeff has actually done heavier lifting – Lean training and a couple of Kaizen Events. He's also a Livonia native if you hadn't guessed.

Donna and I chatted about Lean over coffee at a local café. When we ordered coffee from the server, Donna asked for cream – or maybe milk – I forget, because it doesn't matter to me as a drinker of black coffee.

The server, in a friendly and efficient way, brought a pot of coffee to the table, with two mugs and a little metal pitcher of creamer (or milk). She poured the first cup of coffee. Then, I couldn't help but notice that the server also, in a friendly and efficient way (mostly efficient, I guess), dropped a spoon into my coffee. I shouldn't say “dropped” because her action was very intentional.

Was it really efficient, though? What happens if you do the wrong thing well? That might be called the “waste of overprocessing.”

As I took the spoon out of my mug and placed it on the table, I chuckled and said to Donna, “Ah, I can't help but notice waste.” She laughed, in that begrudging recognition that most of us working with Lean notice these little details.

Now, I wasn't upset. We were chuckling about it, laughing at ourselves (I think… she might have been laughing at me). We quickly moved on to solving the bigger problems of the world.

But I couldn't help thinking and talking more about the spoon in my coffee (maybe because Lean thinkers obsess over small details, or maybe it's the industrial engineer in me).

I know the server was trying to be helpful by taking care of me, the customer. But, in the realm of “customer focus,” you can't assume all customers are the same or that the average customer represents everybody.

Different customers have different needs. “Every patient is unique!” is a phrase said by many in healthcare, but Lean is still helpful. Lean never assumed every customer is the same… Lean factories are MORE flexible and can produce greater variety. Students are complex, but yet Lean helps a school district improve the new student enrollment process or the substitute teacher call-in process (two projects that LPS has tackled).

Again, I wasn't annoyed by this, but what's the waste involved in just dropping a spoon into a customer's mug?

1. Extra motion for the server (it's minor and arguably inconsequential, but it's there)

2. More work for the customer (taking the spoon out)

3. More clean-up work once we leave (I didn't lick or wipe the spoon before setting it on the table to the side, so it probably dripped some coffee, but hopefully, they'd wipe it just the same without a few drops of coffee)

4. One more spoon to be washed, dried, and put away (consuming a tiny amount of time, energy, water, and soap… which made me think of hospitals washing and sterilizing surgical instruments in a pack that are always unused)

5. Needing a (slightly) bigger inventory of spoons to be used if more are in circulation

Now, it's difficult or awkward for a customer to point out a problem in a process, especially one that's so minor. I wasn't about to complain. “You unnecessarily put a spoon in my coffee, and I am offended by the waste.” No, that's a silly thing to say. I'm not the crabby type of customer who would snap and exclaim, “Who said to put a spoon in my damn coffee!” That customer might exist. I'm sorry for any servers who are called upon to serve them.

Other times, I've thought about the coffee creamers that are brought to me at a diner or hotel restaurant if I'm eating breakfast alone. More often than not, when I order coffee, the server assumes I want milk without asking. Sometimes, they bring a few individually packaged mini-creamers or a bowl full of them. They sit unused and, I presume, are reused for future customers (whether they need them or not). Or, they bring a chilled pitcher of milk… now that really seems like a waste of time and dairy products.

Does any of this matter? Good question!

When we consider the practice of Kaizen in the workplace, some of our improvement might be (should be) driven by reactions to customer complaints. If the coffee was cold, there would be an opportunity to improve a process and customer satisfaction.

When we teach Kaizen, the focus is on:

  • No problem is too small to solve
  • Focus on solving problems that bother you or the customer

In this case, the spoon in the coffee bothered nobody. It's a small problem and maybe something that could be solved. The server could take a second to ask which customers are using creamer or sweetener. “Do you need a spoon?” doesn't take long to ask if she decided to do that instead of just dropping the spoon in.

But, the server doesn't see what she's doing as a problem. It's a tiny problem. Nobody is complaining (the customer or the boss).

You can't solve problems you don't see. Lean and Kaizen help us get better at seeing problems and fixing them.

Does a problem like that NEED solving? No, but I think problems like that are important in the early stages of creating a culture of continuous improvement. After asking people to solve problems that bug them or the customers, you might teach them about the “types of waste” in the broader Lean approach.

As staff members start solving small problems (and the things that bug them), they get better at problem-solving. They become more attuned to waste and other problems. They can be proactive and solve problems that a future customer MIGHT complain about. They can improve service and reduce costs at the same time. The practice of Kaizen, for an individual or a team, has to start somewhere. Small is usually the place to start.

What we see happening in a Kaizen culture is the CUMULATIVE effect of lots of small improvements. Dropping the spoon in my coffee or not is not the life-or-death, profit-or-loss, make-or-break moment for a café. But, that small improvement plus 499 other small improvements over time would make a huge difference.

Thanks to Donna for indulging me in my spoon talk and everything else we chatted about.

A restaurant (or a hospital or a school district) can ALSO solve the big strategic problems that really matter. There's a time and a place for Kaizen events and A3s. There's a time and a place for aligning those things to goal and metrics, through strategy deployment. Process improvement experts or consultants or “belts” can help with some of those problems.

However, ThedaCare is an example of a health system that expects 80% of their organization's improvement to come from staff-driven ideas. Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder have done research to show that this is true across a broad range of organizations (see their latest book The Idea-Driven Organization).

Big projects matter. Ambitious process redesign efforts matter.

But I think we also have to think about developing every individual's ability to identify and fix those “spoon in the mug” problems. What are your “spoon in the mug” problems in your workplace? If you can't think of any, go look for one today and maybe ask others to do the same.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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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. Isn’t it possible that providing the spoon actually reduces waste and better serves customers? Just as some inventory is still required in a Lean environment.

    For example, if x% of customers change their mind and decide they want cream after all, then not leaving a spoon is poor service to those customers. Motion waste is increased as the waitress must return to the customer and discover the need, return to the spoon storage area, and then return to the customer.

    Should the other customer change his mind and want cream and not have a spoon, you have the possibility of introducing defect waste. As the single spoon might be shared between customers introducing cross-contamination.

    Then there is the probably that picky customers out number Lean customers :-) . x% of customers thinking that the product offering should include a spoon even though they don’t need it versus y% of customers that are Lean practitioners and notice the unneeded feature.

    Totally eliminating “apparent” waste should not take the place of accomplishing the primary mission of the organization.

    Helping solve the epidemic of too many spoons,


    • I like your thought process, Ed.

      Like I tried to say in the piece, the spoon in the mug is not a life or death issue for a business. Not having a culture of continuous improvement COULD be a life or death issue.

      If I were a restaurant manager or owner, I’d want an environment where staff are thinking about experimenting with better ways to do things. Maybe giving a spoon to each customer is the “least waste” way of doing things. You might have to try a new way and find out.

      That spoon has to be cleaned, which consumes time, energy, soap, and water—even if the inventory of spoons on hand is the same.

      I still think asking the customer each time might be a good compromise… but I’d want the staff to try and decide… what works best? We can have a hypothesis, but we don’t know until we try and found out. Plan, Do, Study, Adjust.

  2. Great article! I really like the idea of starting to solve problems that just bother you as opposed to some grand strategic vision. I completely agree that learning to solve problems is a critical skill in building confidence with continuous improvement.

    My spoon view… Perhaps asking each individual when they order their coffee if they need room for cream what type of sweetener they would like would give be a signal that a spoon was needed for that order. This would also give the customer a sense of a customized to order experience tailored to them?

    This would be a fun set of experiments to run!

  3. Hello Mark,
    As you know, we teach Lean at Home on our website. My kids and I often have these discussions – is it wasted motion to set the table with X, or would the waste be not having it available when we want it? What about school lunches – is sending a generous amount of food in their lunchboxes overproduction? Or would the waste be not having enough, and not being able to concentrate at school as a result?
    Like you say, it isn’t actually the spoon that is the problem. It’s developing a culture where you learn to see waste.

  4. Seems to me placing a spoon inside a customer’s beverage without them asking for it can feel intrusive and unwarranted. Does this idea come from the VOC? Does the customer really want this ie. does it add value for them? Nice post.

  5. “No problem is too small to solve, Focus on solving problems that bother you or the customer” fondamentals in Kaizen

  6. Mark, I love reading your blog. I get a lot of great fodder for my current role in training and continual improvement in a distribution center.

    One of my favorite posts was about one of your visits to Toyota and how one lean idea was to put a bungee strap around a pot to keep it in place. This post reminded me of that. It’s sometimes hard for management to wrap their minds around projects that have no return on investment, like adding/not adding a spoon to a cup of coffee, but they don’t realize that the win is getting folks to see the waste in the first place.

    Thanks for the good read.

  7. Alternative approach from another diner:

    Creamers were placed on the table by default. After a refill or two, the server asked “You don’t need any cream?” and took them away.

    I wouldn’t expect a staff member to question putting a fork, spoon, and knife out together as standard silverware though… but again, it’s up to staff figuring things out, not an outsider.

  8. It seems to me from my very limited lean experience that stressed out companies should start with getting lots and lots of small improvements as this is the only way they will free up enough time for the big improvements. I think this can also help with the, “Well, when are THEY going to…” mentality.


    • Well said, Josh. Getting people to participate in improvement, instead of just throwing complaints or suggestions at their managers, really helps change the culture. Don’t get me wrong, the leaders are responsible for creating an environment where people want to speak up.

      When people say “we don’t have time for improvement,” then the best way to get started is to identify and solve small problems that don’t take much time. Like you said, you can then free up time to do more improvement and then eventually get to some bigger problems to solve.

  9. I had an opportunity to have breakfast with a Lean colleague, Karen Martin, at a restaurant in the Fort Worth area.

    We noticed a sign… some standardized work for employees, if you will.

    It said that servers should NOT give customers a straw or a lemon for their water or beverage unless it’s requested, “in order to reduce waste and cost.”


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