Home » Change Management » Project Management Improvement Is As Easy As Brewing Coffee

“Every morning I make a pot of coffee at home. For many years, I’ve scooped out the coffee until it looks about right. Most mornings it’s incredibly delicious. Some days it’s too strong. Some days it’s too watery. … Then we started experimenting. 120 grams. 110 grams. 100 grams. 80 grams. 70 grams. It turns out that my family loves the coffee when we use 75 grams of ground beans per pot, significantly less than what we had been making.” Alan Zeichick, Measure twice, scoop once. SD Times, November 2011, pg 74.

Project Management Improvement Is As Easy As Brewing Coffee

Measuring, as a project management tool, is an experiment. It is an experiment in trying to figure out what to measure and how to measure it. Both are fairly challenging, but worth doing once we discover a combination that works. Alan was successful with his experiment with coffee. He had a way to determine if what he was doing, making a pot of coffee, was successful or not: he and his family could taste it. He also acquired a new method of measuring. Before he had simply used a scoop and eyeballed it. Now, he had a weight scale and measured the coffee in grams. He conducted an experiment of varying the amount of coffee that went into the pot. He found a weight, 75 grams, that everyone agreed upon and he had a method of repeating getting the weight he wanted, his digital kitchen scale. He greatly simplified and improved a daily — and many would call a critical — process.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who would have hated this. Instead of being able to argue over the construction of each pot of coffee (e.g., add more coffee, no add less, fluff it more, no pack it down!) one person would simply measures it precisely and brew the pot. Done. Because the previous method of scooping had generated varying results on taste, we would have formed a guidance committee to help decide policy and procedures on brewing each pot of coffee. We would also have assigned Quality Assurance (QA) to watch the scooping process and taste the coffee at the end. Each QA person would have a different taste preference in coffee, so how well we did with each pot was pretty much determined by which QA person showed up at the CRR (coffee readiness review). Everyone was actively managing and engaged in getting the coffee brewed (see the notion of thriving on defects). Careers were made or lost by spending time in the coffee brewing activity. The last two CEOs had all spent time in coffee brewing on their rise to the top, so everyone wanted to spend some time there also to make a name for themselves.

I’ve chronicled various cases of where we went from late and buggy projects to consistent on-time with good quality projects. Getting the schedules right usually centered on doing something simple such as measuring and then using the average schedule duration of the last few similar projects to set the current schedule. This is an activity that takes minutes and results in a schedule that is achieved within two weeks of the target, rather than the weeks and months that had been needed to set a schedule in the past that then ran late by three to six to nine months. We’ve also computed the simple average time to fix a defect and replaced multiple meetings and heated discussions with “it will be fixed in two weeks, next issue.” Simple measurements, proceeded by multiple experiments to find a good measurement, took long standing seemingly complex problems and turned them into routine and reliable activities (see how we also did this using project management business rules). It was amazing how many people appeared unhappy when we made these classic activities into predictable and reliable tasks that no longer had to be crisis managed on a daily basis.

The lesson learned is that often solutions to tough problems are closer than we expect. We can more readily see these solutions when we spend some time measuring and less time speculating — though we don’t always realize that is what we are doing — we call it managing.

However, the second lesson learned that is relevant to project managers is that there is often a high investment by many people in those problems (surprisingly, they are often unaware of this). Part of this is resistance to change or just competitive push back on another person’s initiative. Part of it is just human nature of not wanting to be surprised or embarrassed by fixing a problem we thought we knew where the successful fix highlighted how little we truly understood.

Measuring can be a great project management tool and is arguably as easy as brewing a good pot of coffee. The trick is to ensure we are measuring something that makes sense and often it is an experiment to find out what makes sense and how to measure it reliably. Once we figure that out, we can get consistently successful projects and possibly great coffee.

Where do simple (or even complex) measurements help take the guesswork out of your project management?

Thank you for sharing!

5 thoughts on “Project Management Improvement Is As Easy As Brewing Coffee

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Cary King • @Bruce

    It is a great start for business units when they just define what products/services they offer and count how many times they do them.

    Then, perhaps, break them down into work components (WBS) and get accountability matrices going – to show how those services are performed. A big step forward when they can get their service fulfillment documented in activity diagrams with swimlanes.

    Then start tracking how much time is spent by staff on each of the activities – to get some basic stats.

    Create checklists for their staff so that work is more consistently performed.

    Perhaps start understanding just what the Lean work flow looks like. Maybe even start to understand who their “customers” are and what their “customers” really want.

    What seems to work is when business units are managed with Tom Peters’ idea of Professional Services in mind. That every business unit is its own Professional Services Firm or Service Bureau.

    These simple things can help a lot.

    Bruce Benson • Cary,

    Great approach. I find that just taking the time to understand how things really work (define, assign, track, measure, understand, etc.) while often immediately suggest how to improve or readily show new opportunities for products and services.


  2. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Yaman Saleh • In order to have great coffee, you need to pick the beans carefully. In project management, like in other management disciplines, not everything is measurable. How can you measure the enthusiasm of the team? Customer satisfaction? Or simply, the PM’s level of energy and dedication?

    This is one of the differences between management and leadership. A true leader does not rely on numbers alone. She or he taps into other leadership resources, like intuition and wisdom.

    Leaders are born with a tendency to lead. If that is augmented with proper training and expertise, you got a true leader. One who can move the whole organization towards a clear vision.

    The Soaring Eagle

    Bruce Benson • Yaman,

    I’ve found the best leaders are well grounded, experienced, in the area they lead in. I’ve seen leaders who had the talent of getting people to follow their vision and work hard, who then sent those folks off over a cliff. I’ve seen the exact same organization pick itself up and just by paying attention to the insights of those same cliff divers, rapidly grow to an exceptional and productive group.

    I recall an article many years ago where Bill Gates admitted he didn’t know how to run a business well. He then added that he did know that when he sold 1 million copies of a program then the business thrived and so he focused on doing just that. It was a simple measure, but he knew what kind of number he needed to achieve.

    I read a book about Gen Franks (helping Iraq to leave Kuwait) who knew that if he could get a certain amount of supplies and units to the right place at the right time (so a logistics problem) then they could win the battle at that place. He mapped all the complex details of such an endeavor into some simple concepts that if achieved, his team, doing the jobs they knew, would be successful.

    Better leadership is always a plus, but the good leaders I’ve observed always had a few significant measures they used to motivate and measure progress.

    Very good point, thanks.

  3. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Cary King • @Bruce,


    I like to ask my customers to consider using evidence-based management with their programs and projects. There are some relatively easy-to-apply Lean, Six Sigma (DMADV/DMAIC), and cost measures that organizations tend to ignore that can make quite a difference is understanding what is really happening.

    If you don’t know what your “products” are and what they’re costing, and it is surprising how many don’t, then how would you know whether changes will be good or bad?

    Bruce Benson • Cary,

    I’ve found tools such as Six Sigma are great when used in a smart way. I’ll often first recommend people just use simple averages to characterize what is going on. Often, this alone gives them insights they didn’t have (and motivates getting data) and an average is something they understand (and can argue about). When ready — which means they start to understand the usefulness but limitations on averages — then a light approach using some Six Sigma tools and techniques can be very handy. Too much, too soon, can overwhelm a team (or organization). I can tell things are not right when folks just look at charts and have no comments, no arguments or energetic discussions, about the data or trend shown. The technique has overwhelmed the problem description and the problem is now couched in a terminology and chartmanship that no one understands at a gut level. From this point it starts to get ignored and usually just fades away.

    It is amazing how finally knowing one’s costs can make a huge difference in so many things. Many decisions and actions become self obvious once this is known (in a repeatable and reliable way that is automatically updated as things change). Similar to our private finances, most people know how much money we have or get but rarely know where it is being spent or where it had been spent in the past.

    Thanks for the feedback

  4. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Peter Scott • Interesting discussion using the coffee brew analogy. What happens when your measurements are deemed rubbish by someone else, just like Americans brewing coffee – it is rubbish to think it is even palatable.
    So first make a determination of what you are measuring (or brewing) is universally acceptable and that is the nub of the matter. I did notice that the weight was in grams which is metric and a standard so that is a plus.
    I hope this stirs up a bit of feedback.

    Senthil Nagarajan • Wonderful perception. thanks for sharing.

    Bruce Benson • Peter,

    Agreed, sometimes we can come up with great systems that generate something that is pretty mediocre – but we don’t realize it. I’ve seen teams kill themselves getting something done and then feel pretty good about their herculean effort – but when an outside third party looks at what was done – one wonders why they even tried (maybe good team building).

    So, one should not “brew” coffee? (as I sit hear drinking a hot chocolate – I’m not a great fan of coffee).


    Peter Scott • One should not brew coffee. One uses the style and concept that originated in Italy and perfected by the Aussies. A good Barrista and an espresso coffee machine is the way to go.
    Even a bad barrista will beat a stewed brew. The ‘coffee’ chain that starts with ‘S’ and ends with ‘ucks’ really does follow a process but the end product still cannot get that perfect pot of coffee.

    Benoit VELLIEUX • Bruce, Peter,
    reading your contributions is a real pleasure, the comparison with the coffee brewer gives a new flavor to this serious discussion.

    The next time when I add my contribution or open a new discussion, I’ll try to do it as pleasant and relevant as you did it here!

    Cary King • Nice article.
    Management, and, particularly Project Managers, might want to spend a little more time developing evidence-based management.

    Bruce Benson • Cary,

    Your reference states: “Evidence abounds to help us make the right choices.” I heartily agree. I’ve driven improvements in various organizations by just leveraging the information right at our fingertips (often hidden away in project archives, information management systems, etc.).

    I am a strong believer in doing management experiments where we take a “theory” and test it out (the article encourages this also). In too many organizations folks are “testing” theories all the time but without realizing they are just theories and hence without the rigor of having a baseline, a small pilot project, and a measure to see if what they are directing is doing any good.

    Good article, thank you for sharing.

  5. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Martin Palczynski, CSQE, CSSGB, CQE • What does this have to do with Agile?

    Bruce Benson • Martin,

    Agile is applied in the context of a project. I’ve seen more perfectly good software development approaches fail, simply because the management around it was not doing well.

    Scrum in particular I considered brilliant because it did something simple: it computed this basic number called velocity. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something like “we can’t do that in software (measure productivity and performance).”

    I moved from programming to management because the problems we were having in programming were not technical, they were managerial. Once we “fixed” management, it was amazing how well a lot of programming efforts did without needing an infusion of new methodologies, training or tools (we were doing waterfall – which did just fine, once we eliminated silly management practices – such as unrealistic schedules). Don’t get me wrong, I prefer the newer methodologies and tools, but they were not the solution to the root causes, in my experience (but they sure made things better, once we got rid of the core problems).

    Hope that helps.


Comments are closed.