by Kevin Coupe

Remember the kid from The Sixth Sense who says, “I see dead people?”

Well, I feel like him sometimes, except my line is a little different:

I see lessons and metaphors.

It isn’t quite as good a line as the one from the movie, but it’s mine, and I’m sticking with it.

One of the things I’ve done almost every morning in Portland is walk from the apartment I’m renting near Portland State University down to the Stumptown Coffee on Third. And there, I sit at the counter each morning, drink black coffee, and read the digital edition of the New York Times and go through email on my iPad. Sure, I could make coffee and do all this at home, but I’ve had a bad knee (calcified tendonitis, I’m told) that has prevented me from jogging, and so I’ve developed this habit to make sure I get out and walk. Sometimes I cut through the city, and sometimes I walk along Waterfront Park, on the banks of the Willamette River. But I force myself to get out.

I tell you all this to explain that while sitting at the counter, I also tend to watch the baristas grind and measure the beans to make coffee. I’ve been fascinated by it all summer, because they’ll grind the beans into this small metal container, which they then weigh … and inevitably, they will remove just a couple of grains to get it right. And when I say “a couple of grains,” I mean just a whisper of coffee beans, hardly enough to, in my view, make a difference.

Last week I was sitting there and I struck up a conversation with Alina, a very nice young woman who was performing this particular task. And when I inquired, she told me that the weight they are going for is between 19.5 and 20 grams of ground coffee … and that yes, being off by a little bit, one way or another, would make a difference. (You can see her at work in the pictures below.)

Well, I’m certainly not going to argue with her. She demonstrated in our conversation that not only does she know a lot more about coffee than I do, but she’s passionate about the subject. Which is a good thing if you are working for Stumptown Coffee. I also love the coffee there, so I’m not going to question the methodology.

But I also think there is a larger lesson and even a metaphor here for how businesses operate.

We talk a lot here about the importance of taking “big swings,” of how it is important in a climate of enormous competition to do things that are ambitious and even audacious to demonstrate both relevance and resonance to customers. But I think we may not pay enough attention to getting the little things right, of paying attention to the small details that may only whisper in the ear of the customer, but that can add up to an experience that is more compelling or a product that is superior.

As you read this, think of me. I may well be at the counter at Stumptown Coffee, sipping from a steaming cup of well-made, hand-crafted coffee … and looking for lessons, metaphors and Eye Openers everywhere,