Starbucks’ Tall Order

If you’re one of the more than 80% of Americans who drink coffee, you have an opinion about what makes it taste good. It’s the beans. Or the roast. Or the grind or the strength or the brewing method. It may be that’s what important is what’s added, the cream or creamer, the sugar or sweetener. Odds are, whether it’s brewed at home, in the office break room, or at your neighborhood Starbucks, you don’t give much thought to getting that morning coffee. But Starbucks does. The complex system they’ve developed to make sure all stores are fully stocked requires daily attention. And use. When the latter stopped, Starbucks came to Interplay for a solution.

The core of the problem was too many partners (how Starbucks describes their employees) knew too little about the company’s biggest business unit, the Supply Chain and Coffee Operations (SCCO.) That lack of knowledge meant partners were placing orders outside of the SCCO. What may have seemed like a simpler, quicker way to get goods to the stores more easily, had the opposite effect. The non-SCCO orders were jeopardizing customer experiences, leaving stores unstocked, and damaging the bottom line. Starbucks identified the problem but needed a solution that would result in behavior change.

Interplay was empathetic to the challenges all of us have in understanding complexity, an understanding developed through design thinking. Increasing knowledge about the complexity of the system would not work. Partners needed to develop insight into how each piece worked together for the whole and how the systems could work to their own needs. Bringing Interplay’s gamification skills to play, the solution focused on developing a visceral understanding of each link in the supply chain. It started the green coffee bean.

Interplay transformed 5,000 square feet of still-unfinished space inside Starbucks headquarters into a human-sized supply chain. From the coffee farm, the “beans” were filtered, roasted, and bagged before moving to the next critical, if not always recognized, stages of handling. That included picking and shipping SKUs and continued to the equivalent of curbside delivery at the neighborhood store.

“Interplay created a learning experience that exceeded our goals.”

Starbucks got the outcome they needed. A team of partners well-versed in the complexities of a successful system and willing to use it. It was even more than Starbucks expected. “Interplay tackled the challenge of communicating the complex world of our Starbucks supply chain…under tight time, budget, and space constraints…and created a learning experience that exceeded our goals,” said one talent manager.

Be The Bean exceeded another goal important to Starbucks, accessibility. As Starbucks manager of Equal Opportunity Initiatives, Martha Lee Galeota explained, “Deaf people experience the world visually. The bean being born, the “bagging”, the transport from the mill to plant, the devanning, the screening, the cleaning, the roasting, the distribution – all an active, visual experience – made the world accessible in a way that most events are not.”

Most importantly, as Vice-President of Global Supply Chain HR Pam Harkins said, “Team members still talk about it.”