By Russell Whitehouse, Kepner-Tregoe

A while ago I was having a coffee at my local coffee shop and chatting with the owner, Rita, who is also a close friend. I idly asked the question, how do you make good coffee? Without thinking for a moment, she looked me straight in the eye and said, "Amore! You've got to make your coffee with love." With that, she disappeared to serve the couple with a toddler who had just walked through the front door. At the time I thought, what a typically Rita thing to say.

You see, Rita can be a bit bohemian at times. Her parents were born in Italy and she was brought up in a really Italian-Australian home. She speaks Italian fluently, learnt her cooking from her mamma, wears lots of black and, as long as I can remember, has always driven an Alfa Romeo. So my first thought was to dismiss the comment as simply Rita-esque. But as I watched Sam the barista make some lattes and espressos I wondered, was there more to it?

Now Sam is a really good barista. He wins competitions doing this stuff. Whenever someone else makes coffee, it just doesn't taste the same. Same machine, same beans, different result. I mean, this is coffee right. It's not rocket science. It's just running hot water through ground beans. Why does it not taste the same? So I began watching Sam more closely.

Every time Sam made a coffee, he ground the beans directly into the portafilter (the ground coffee holder thingy with a handle on it). Then he rested the portafilter on a set of small scales. After getting a reading, he tamped the coffee down with his tamper (yes readers, real baristas have their own personal tampers), locked the portafilter into the group head on the machine (where the hot water comes out), placed a glass on a second set of scales and pressed the tare button. He then placed the glass under the portafilter spout and started the hot water flow. At the same time he started a timer and scribbled a note in his notebook. As soon as the timer pinged, he stopped the water flow and placed the filled glass back on the second set of scales. All of this in one smooth motion. I watched him, fascinated, for ages.

During a lull in activity, I asked him to explain what he was doing. Well, it seems Sam developed his own Six-Sigma way of making coffee. The ground coffee particle size on the grinder is set with a micrometer adjustment and the grind time is electronically adjusted to within 0.05 second. He measures the weight of dry beans in every shot of coffee. By monitoring the net bean weight, he checks that the tamping density is correct and makes sure he doesn't waste any coffee beans. By precisely controlling the draw time, he can control the crema (the layer of foam on top) and bitterness of the espresso. He has a table of times and weights for each blend of coffee to maximize the extraction of coffee oils but minimize excess bitterness. By comparing the weight of espresso to the extraction time, he can also monitor any buildup or flow constrictions in the machine. Finally, the second weighing checks the consistency of the espresso volume in each glass, which apparently should be served within 30 seconds to prevent oxidization! Intrigued, I asked why he made it so difficult. "Because all of those things matter," he replied.

Hmmm, so that's what loving your coffee means! How good would things be if everyone in an organization loved the product they made? Loved it enough to pay the extra care and attention to make sure the inputs to the process were right each time, every time. Loved it enough to ensure the critical process variables are set just right. Loved it enough to ensure the process is running the way it should.

Excellence is about:

  • Understanding what the customer really wants
  • Understanding how your process can provide those results
  • Taking the effort and care to do it
  • And, finally, continuously improving your ability to deliver

The programs we run at Kepner-Tregoe are structured to discover these basic truths. It always starts with what the customer needs to accomplish their goals. A concept we call the Voice of the Customer. Ignore this at your peril, for all the love in the world won’t give you success.

A few years ago, a coffee chain opened multiple outlets across Melbourne, offering a dozen different flavors of coffee, like caramel, hazelnut and toffee. At the time, I asked, "What were they thinking?"

You see, Melbourne has a long history of devoted coffee drinkers. With a rich Euro-Italian history, Melbourne has a very strong café society, with thousands of baristas making arguably the best coffee outside Italy. Children in Melbourne grow up thinking the Italian word for coffee is latté. There's even a strong coffee tribalism. Melbournians constantly make snide comments about the caffeinated dishwater that passes for coffee in other places. Predictably the coffee chain invasion faltered. They forgot that what coffee drinkers in Melbourne really value is the taste of coffee.

Now, when I travel outside Australia and I'm asked what flavor I would like in my coffee, I answer "COFFEE flavor, please… with a dash of love."

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