Volume 13, 
May, 2015


Can Running Lean Make You Rich?
How the interplay between customers and culture makes lean development effective—or not


Sheila Mello

 “You can never be too rich or too thin.” This quote, usually attributed to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, has a great hold on the popular imagination. Might it be relevant to the pursuit of lean activities in the business world?

There is  no shortage of organizations and functions within organizations rushing to apply the principles of lean development. From lean production and lean manufacturing to lean startups and even lean offices, “running lean” in a culture obsessed with speed, efficiency, and (in a different context) thinness seems to be an endlessly attractive proposition.

Perhaps you have been thinking about adopting a lean product development approach so your organization can realize its promised benefits. If so, I encourage you to consider how two important parts of your business—your customers and your development culture—  will interact with this undertaking. I believe you have to start with the customer. Once you understand your market and the challenges customers face, you can create an organizational culture that supports finding solutions.

An organizational culture that contributes to lean development should

  • be goal-directed,
  • be disciplined,
  • put the customer first, and
  • reward calculated risk-taking.

Read on to find out how the interplay between customers and culture can support—or impede—your implementation of lean product development.

Where did the idea of lean come from, and what does it offer?

First, a bit of background. The concept of lean or agile development arose from Toyota’s Total Production System (developed in the mid-20th century) and eventually propagated in various forms throughout manufacturing, software development, and product development more generally. It’s difficult to find a universally agreed-upon definition of lean development, but a few of its principles and benefits may help to explain its attractiveness.

  • It’s iterative. This is a compelling characteristic, especially in industries where fast cycle times prevail. “Fail early” has become a mantra for innovators. Lean approaches favor this ability.
  • It promises quicker time to market. When you need to beat the competition or pursue a faster return on investment, shortening the time between concept and sale is a big benefit.
  • It helps eliminate waste. Streamlining your operations can feel satisfying for its own sake. But the real advantage of eliminating waste is to increase profits. Waste, in the context of lean development, is defined as anything that doesn’t add value

These are laudable goals. Here are four things to consider as you go after the benefits of lean development:

1. Make sure you understand what you are iterating.

One way lean organizations achieve faster time to market is by using iterative development to fine-tune development as they go. This may include practices like rapid prototyping and incorporating customer feedback early in the process. But it’s essential to remember that the iterative in iterative development refers to producing many iterations of a possible solution—not many iterations of an approach or strategy. That’s why your development culture absolutely must be goal-directed. You iterate toward the goal. You don’t want to iterate the goal itself.

2. Don’t let anyone with a brilliant idea race off in pursuit of the idea.

This is the discipline part of the equation. You need to have a strong portfolio management process in place (again, so you know where you’re going). And you need the management discipline to keep enthusiastic individual contributors—for example, salespeople, or even, in a smaller organization, the founder—from hijacking the portfolio. A strong portfolio management process prevents the development organization from charging off in a different direction in response to a perceived need.

3. Onesies are for babies, not for customer input

This is a variation on the enthusiastic salesperson/founder. Often, a top salesperson will return from visiting a large account with a request from that customer to modify the product. But a single piece of data, even from a large, important customer, does not constitute a statistically significant analysis of the needs of your entire customer base or of the market. Unless you are a custom development or consulting firm doing one-off projects, you need to have a process for testing and validating that input before you change your development direction based on it.

4. Cultivate healthy fear

Fear of failure can be paralyzing, especially when a company’s reward system is structured in a way that compensates sticking with the status quo. You don’t want to punish people who embrace uncertainty, since uncertainty is a big part of an iterative process. But the other end of the spectrum—a desire to rush off in any new direction regardless of how well it fits within the company’s mission and strategy—can lead to equally disastrous results. You shouldn’t be afraid of failing, but you should be afraid of not knowing where you’re going. What slows time to market? Rework. What contributes to rework? Not having a clear idea of what you’re working on. Once you know the direction you’re going, then it’s fine to iterate quickly, fail fast, and move on to another potential solution. That way, your iterations move you forward instead of leaving you running in place.

Taken to its absurd extreme, the Duchess of Windsor’s advice about richness and thinness would collapse. The world wouldn’t work if a single individual possessed 100 percent of the wealth and everybody else had nothing. You wouldn’t exist at all if you kept losing weight indefinitely.

So it is with lean development. Pursuing any methodology or approach single-mindedly, with no attention to interrelated parts of your business, is a recipe for failure. But applying the principles of lean development judiciously, in the context of your customers and your culture, puts your development efforts in the sweet spot of rich enough and thin enough.

Further reading

Next Big Sound iterates not only on products but also on the way it works (Blog article)

The one thing large companies need before adopting Lean Startup (LinkedIn article)

Silicon Valley Isn't Innovative, It’s Iterative (Forbes article)

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