What Starbucks Learned About Learning

As part of our 2010 brown-bag series of workshops, Redfin on Friday hosted Christine McHugh to talk about what she learned about training folks in her 20 years at Starbucks. We expected someone with that much experience to be deep into middle age but in fact she started at Starbucks as a barista while she was still in college. At the time, Starbucks had only 37 stores. Now it has 14,000. Today, Christine heads up global learning for all of Starbucks, with responsibility spanning stores in 50 countries, some licensed, some run as a joint venture, many company-owned.

What we liked about Christine was her emphasis on domain expertise, most of which comes from the folks making the business go day to day. The story of Starbucks learning initiatives is of training moving from the classroom to the stores, from trainer-led courses to manager-led courses, from lecture to workshop. Here’s what Christine had to say, first in a brief presentation, then in response to our questions:

From the start, our training involved tasting 30 coffees. That commitment to quality training has stayed true but we’ve had to change. Yes, we’re still focused on our product and on our culture. But we’ve had to change how we deliver our training, moving more to leader-to-employee training, and now over the last few years experimenting with technology.

We’re hiring tens of thousands of people every year. That is a big engine. We’ve had to find different ways to do our training. In the last few years, that shift has become more dramatic. Our basic challenge is ensuring that a partner comes out of the system prepared to deliver a quality beverage, with a smile, quickly.

As we’ve tried to accommodate partners who can’t wait for a lecture-based class to come around on the schedule, we now depend on in-store one-to-one delivery of our training materials. Three principles guide our strategy:

1. Experiential learning: how do you encourage learning through experience? How do you optimize informal learning? Part of that is demographically driven. The millennial generation that we hire wants hands-on learning, where 70% is on the job, 20% is learning through others, and only 10% comes from instructors.

2. Technology-based learning: we used to have a lot of books; we now use online learning, video. This increases speed-to-market. We just implemented a learning management system; we use Plateau. And let me tell you it has been paaaainful. This isn’t because of Plateau. It’s just because any switch of that size is a lot of work.

3. Leader as coach: we want to be very clear about the leader’s coaching role. We used to have a lot of trainers. But we don’t have a big base of trainers now and we don’t think we ever will again. We want the leaders in the business to be coaches. When we rolled out a new Frappucino program, we wanted senior vice-presidents to be certified – they had to take a test – and then we wanted them to propagate what they learned through the whole company. When everybody goes through it, we get better engagement and buy-in, and we learn what’s wrong with process we’re training people on…

How can we avoid Death by PowerPoint? We want to roll up our sleeves, we design activities; it could be the simple act of reflection followed by asking folks to write something. We try dyads, with two people, where you work with a partner. We try to find different ways to make it creative. In online meetings, we use polls and chats; we ask participants to do some pre-work where they had done something in advance. The emphasis is on lots of pictures and less words. Storytelling can be really powerful.

Our instructional design team is really nerdy – they have to be very detail-oriented about what they’re training on – but also really creative. Our best trainers are a combo of functional experts in teaching and subject-matter experts. About half my trainers have done the job of being a store manager, a district manager. When it comes to delivering the materials the team prepares, we pair on-the-job trainers with experienced facilitators. For example, we paired site selectors – people who picked where the stores were – and then certified them in facilitation.

How do we prepare the coaches? Anyone in our stores who wants to be a trainer applies; we select the trainers based on very specific criteria — Are they performing well in their current job? Can they give feedback? Are they good planners and organizers? Can they execute in a standardized way? — then give them some basic training on how to teach.

Why are we moving from the classroom to the store? We had to shift because people could wait months until we had enough folks to fill the class. But the most important reason is that we wanted the store manager to be accountable – not somebody else –for their folks to be well-trained. We expect better-trained partners, and that people will get the learning when they need it. We tested instructor-led vs. in-store-led training, and the data so far are heavily weighted toward in-store training performing better.

How do we train our licensees and JVs differently? Everybody is the same. A barista is a barista is a barista. Some licensees – Safeway for example — may add content. Some countries bolt-on new training; Britain offers a flat-white coffee that other countries don’t.

How do you make sure you get consistency?
We send out a kit, with a coaches guide, with posters. People have to learn about a beverage in three ways — I saw it, I made it, I tasted it. We ask them to go back and make the drink; we survey customers, asking them on our receipts to fill out a survey for a free drink.

How has the training organization evolved over the last 15 – 20 years?
When we started out, training did a little bit of everything. Then training became a very big organization. Then we took it back to something very focused. We started with 1 person, then went to 150, then went to 90. We train trainers now, rather than training people directly.

How do you train people on customer service?
We do talk a lot about our values; we talk about how we greet customers, how we talk to customers. Training on skills rather than just product knowledge is an area we’re taking a much closer look at…

We have advanced training, a coffee master’s program. We also have, mostly for store managers, a coaching certification. We have an elective curriculum. We used to have more touchey-feeley electives, now it’s very business-oriented. For video and on line learning, we use shorter courses. The short courses are what people use and go back to. Ten minutes is the max.

How do you develop people?
Well it’s some training, some plain old good managers, some corporate values. The discipline we bring to it is that we give performance reviews, do development plans, figure out what resources we need to execute on the plan.

That was it! Many thanks to Christine for an awesome brown-bag talk. When she was done, the crowd went wild, and Christine was mobbed by admirers. We really learned a ton.


  • http://www.gihomeloans.com Derrick Evans


    Thanks for an insightful and instructional article.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Happy to help Derrick, but all the thanks go to Christine!

  • http://www.nike-air-force-one.com air force 1 shoes

    I've been looking for a similar to this post. Not only extensively but also detailly. We can learn a lot from the post. I recommend to you , you can come communication in here. Let us grow up together.On the other hand ,I know some websites content is very well.you can go and see.Such as Air force 1 mid

  • http://www.gucci-outlet-store.com/ gucci handbags

    Mark S. is definitely on the right track. If you want to get a professional looking email address, Id recommend buying your name domain name, like or
    gucci muffler
    If its common it might be difficult to get, however, be creative and you can usually find something.