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Stop Pouring the Wrong Coffee
By Bill Collier

Ever been to a restaurant with someone who drinks decaf coffee?

You sit down and order drinks. Someone at your table asks for decaf coffee. Your server fills the order as requested. So far, so good.

Pretty soon, your food arrives and you dig in. The drinks are getting low, so either your server or someone assigned the mission-critical task of keeping drinks topped off swoops in. The coffee gets refilled, but not with decaf. Luckily, the decaf drinker notices that the server isn’t wielding the familiar orange color-coded pot and brings the mistake to the server’s attention. A mumbled apology is offered, and the server takes the cup to the kitchen to swap it out for the right stuff.

No harm done, right? Happens all the time.

Let’s take a look at the effects of this minor incident on the parties involved:

  • It wastes the restaurant’s time and money, literally pouring good product down the drain.
  • It wastes the server’s time, eating into time available to take good care of his or her customers.
  • To some small extent, it erodes the customers’ confidence in the restaurant.

Multiply these effects by dozens of locations in a restaurant chain times thousands of decaf customers times a boatload of wrong-coffee pourings, and you get scads of lost time, product, money, efficiency, productivity, and customer confidence.

All irretrievable. And all so easily avoidable.

Virtually all restaurants use orange color-coding to designate decaf coffee. Astonishingly, though, most still rely on memory or ESP to determine whether a customer gets regular or decaf.

A very few food service operators have eradicated this problem by placing a telltale coaster under each cup of decaf.

No more doubt. No asking the customer about the contents of the cup. No more mistakes, or wasted time, or wasted product, or eroded customer relationships.

What a simple, foolproof, and inexpensive solution to a widespread problem.

Two quick questions:

  1. Why the heck doesn’t every restaurant do this?
  2. What’s your version of this problem in your business?

Now, I know that not all problems in business are this simple or this cut-and-dried. So, regardless of the severity or complexity of your oft-repeated errors, how about using an old saying to give this phenomenon a name?

“We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over.”

Here are two important take-aways from this discussion:

  • We’re talking about a system for fixing a recurring problem.
  • Every mistake is an opportunity to improve your company.

Let’s look at both of these ideas.

Use systems to avoid future mistakes.

If your approach to errors is people-centered, I recommend that you raise your sights a bit. While mistakes do happen and they can often be attributed to human error, a lack of systems and procedures is more likely in most cases.

Take the coffee example. If the manager happens to witness the decaf error, a brief conversation with the server might help avoid such mistakes for a while. The boss might even go so far as to convene a meeting of the wait staff, where they explore the importance of remembering which customer gets what coffee.

All well and good, but why not put a system in place (like the coaster) to remove as much human error as possible?

So I again ask, what’s your version of this problem in your business? Can you fix your nagging, recurring mistakes with color-coding, forms, templates, systems or procedures?

Every mistake is an opportunity to improve your company.

Mistakes are costly. They waste time, money, productivity and resources. They aggravate employees. They lose customers. Even so, each and every one is a golden opportunity for improvement.

Every time a mistake happens, ask: What can be done to prevent this same type of error from happening in the future? This is “root cause” thinking. You and all your people should get good at looking for the root causes of problems.

It’s not about blaming the individual employee. When errors occur, the person involved needs to admit it without fear of reprisal.

Drive individual blame and cover-ups out of your company. Replace them with willingness to admit mistakes, so you can find the root cause of errors and prevent them in the future. Learn from mistakes.

Make it the job of everyone in your company to identify and attack the root causes of errors.

Stop pouring the wrong coffee. Stop doing it over. Instead, start doing it right the first time.


Bill Collier is a St. Louis-based business coach, consultant and speaker. He is the author of the book “How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner … and Still Have a Life.” His website is, and his email is


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