Integrating Cultures with Lean Coffee

I stumbled upon Jason Little’s blog post, Hacking a Conservative Organization with Lean Coffee at a time when the organization that I worked for was acquired by a competitor. Shortly after the acquisition, I was asked to lead a team of agile coaches for the new (combined) organization. One of the goals of this new team was to support the Software Development organization in building high-performing agile teams. As the agile coaches started to observe the teams within Software Development we realized that the cultures of the organizations being merged were quite different. We knew we were going to have to bring the two cultures together if we were to be successful in meeting our goal. Having read about Jason’s experience with Lean Coffee, we decided to try it and see what happened. We felt that the Lean Coffee format would help teams in their journey towards self-organization while discussing and acting on opportunities to improve.

What did we do?

We put posters up around the office to advertise (very similar to what Jason used) and we held our first Lean Coffee in October. We left the Lean Coffee open to anyone who wanted to participate and the topic open to whatever they wanted to talk about. Our Lean Coffee meetings were held in the office kitchen to encourage an open and inclusive environment. We also had plenty of “walk-through” participants who were simply getting their morning coffee.

The format used for the Lean Coffee was:

  1. Write your topics on a sticky note (one per note)
  2. Put them in the To Discuss column on the table
  3. Dot vote on the topics and put them in priority order based on the results of the vote
  4. Start discussing the first topic with a checkpoint after 8 minutes
  5. Complete Roman voting to determine if the group wants to continue or end the discussion
    • Continue discussing for 5 minutes if the group votes to continue
    • Continue discussing for 2 minutes if there was a tie between the yes and no votes
    • Move on to the next topic if the vote was to end the discussion
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until the one hour time-box was reached
  7. Hold a short retrospective at the end of the Lean Coffee

What happened?

There were 16 people at our first Lean Coffee and we discussed everything from database architecture to the upcoming Christmas party. The participants came mostly from the Software Development teams. The energy level throughout the hour was high as participants were engaged in the discussions (the doughnuts likely helped, too). Some were surprised by how much they covered in an hour and the depth they were able to get to in the discussions. Another interesting thing for participants was that they almost exclusively talked about work issues and ideas even though the format was open to any topic.

At the end of each Lean Coffee we asked three questions as part of the 5 minute retrospective:

  • What surprised you about the Lean Coffee meeting?
  • Rate the value you received from the Lean Coffee meeting (1 – being low; 4 – being high)
  • Would you attend a future Lean Coffee meeting?

From this we received very positive feedback on the value of the Lean Coffee meetings as well as an overwhelming response (100% so far) that participants would attend again. We also heard about things we could improve such as scheduling, advertising and room setup.

We have since held 5 more Lean Coffee meetings in various locations, which are attracting higher numbers of participants representing a greater cross-section of the organization.

What were the results?

The best way to sum up the benefits we have received from the Lean Coffee format is that:

People are discussing topics that they know need to be discussed, but which they don’t take the time for in their regular schedule.

I know that may sound counter-intuitive, but the truth is that the Lean Coffee format has provided a break for team members where they can stop and reflect on important topics outside of their day-to-day tasks.

A few of the specific benefits we have realized are:

  • Discussion on the quality of an upcoming release and the decision to focus on improving this
  • Deciding to schedule a release retrospective for the leadership team
  • Communicating the vision more frequently and visibly by posting it up on the walls in the office
  • Making changes to the Lean Coffee to include more people
  • Sharing best practices regarding application security between IT and Software Development
  • Building relationships across departments

What experiments did we run?

Since hosting our first Lean Coffee, we have run experiments designed to increase attendance and representation from departments outside of Software Development and to increase the impact of the Lean Coffee meetings. Three experiments we have run so far include:

  • Adding an “action” column to the table to hold action items as they come up in conversation
  • Creating a shared Lean Coffee calendar in Outlook as many forgot about the meetings when we used the posters alone.
  • Lean Pizza…need I say more?

After adding the action column to our Lean Coffee, we found that more changes were being implemented as a direct result of the conversation during the meeting. The Lean Pizza experiment increased attendance and diversity of participants during that meeting.

What about the culture?

In the beginning of this article I mentioned that it would be important to bring the cultures of the two organizations together in order for us to meet our goal of building high-performing agile teams. While the cultures of the two organizations are still quite different, we are starting to see an awareness of this within the teams. The Lean Coffee format has provided an open forum for individuals to bring these differences to the forefront and discuss them. I expect to see the culture converge more and more through the use of Lean Coffee and as a greater diversity of team members join in on the discussions.

What’s next?

We plan to continue the Lean Coffee meetings on our regular cadence of once every 3 weeks for the foreseeable future. As such, we believe it will have a positive impact on the organization in many additional ways. Leadership teams within our organization have already started using the “agenda-less” meeting format with time boxed discussions to improve the effectiveness of their meetings. The idea of self-organization is not as foreign to teams as it used to be – now that they have a tangible example to point to. Organizational agility will continue to advance as more and more people become involved in the Lean Coffee meetings from all parts of the organization.

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