Coke Machine

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The Coke Machine Syndrome

The scene is your company’s or institution’s executive conference room.  You have just been presented with the new corporate budgets for development, administration, sales, marketing, manufacturing, and research.  Not too surprisingly, the numbers are significantly higher for the coming year.


The debate commences.  Each department argues persuasively for its position.  With some significant growth goals for the coming year, marketing and sales “can’t make it without more salesmen, special pricing and promotions.”  Manufacturing obviously can’t produce to the new goals without more equipment and higher inventories.  And administration simply must have the staff and new computers to track and account for all the new business.

After some discussion, the budget is approved and 95% of your company’s expenses have been committed for the current budget.


At this point, the administrative manager mentions that the company has been delaying the installation of a Coke machine in the executive section of the building, and it needs action.  The President opens the subject for discussion.

For the next hour and a half, the debate rages with an intensity not felt during the budget presentations.  Should it be placed near the stairway, or in the employee lounge, or in the stairwell, or just where?  Should its location be optimized for ease of access?  Or should it be placed so that it’s out of sight?

By the time the meeting adjourns, nearly as much time has been spent on the Coke machine as has been spent on the entire budget.


The phenomenon is a familiar one and it’s not restricted to business.  At a recent school board meeting, we observed the passage of a $12 million budget in the first ten minutes, followed by an hour of debate on whether the high school should have a football team.

The Coke machine syndrome is pervasive and it accounts for an incredible waste of management time and effort.


Coke machine syndromes happen because:

 • Everyone KNOWS about Coke   machines.

• Everyone is PERSONALLY AFFECTED by the decision.

• Everyone HAS AN OPINION.

Coke machines are not abstract, million dollar figures.  They’re here, now, and real.  Coke machines and their counterparts consume huge amounts of management and employee productivity.


The first step in managing the Coke machine syndrome is recognizing it when it occurs.  You can identify a syndrome whenever a small, easily understood issue begins to consume a disproportionately large amount of time.

The second step is labeling it.  In other words, hang on to the term: “Coke Machine Syndrome” and define it for your staff.  In that manner, when it occurs, you have a short-hand term that you can use to describe what’s happening.

The third step is to agree that a decision will be made by the close of the meeting.  Then concentrate on the criteria for making the decision, not necessarily the decision itself.

The next step is to gather the facts and to fit the conditions to the criteria.  Also, be sure to agree on a time limit for discussion.

Finally, recognize that the Coke machine syndrome will never produce a consensus decision.  With everyone knowledgeable and everyone having an opinion, there will be a full range of logical, well-supported, and totally divergent opinions of what must be done.



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Last modified: 05/01/09