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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Learning from The Lean Startup movement

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Monday, June 24, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I can see at least three divergent ways of answering this question – which makes it an interesting one to mull over!

First, the Lean Startup clearly hit a good topic (and a nerve) by focusing on the numero uno principle of lean “understand value from the customer’s point of view.” Jim and Dan have been very clear on this point from the outset, but the lean movement has hitherto not come up with a methodology (tool?) to address the how? As a result, most lean programs out there are focused on cost improvement, cash improvement rather than customer value improvement. The Lean Startup has great tools in that respect with the notion of Minimum Viable Product and Pivot. This hits a nerve because Quality is still the poorer relative in the lean approach, as shown by the fact that for all the lean workbooks oout there, not one touches on quality directly. This is a bit frustrating because I’d certainly argue that lean’s “built in quality” is both unique to lean and one of its major contributions.

Second, how “lean” is the Lean Startup? Well, to be honest, not very. I read the book carefully as I wrote the preface to its French edition and many of the lean principles get rather short shrift and interpreted fairly loosely. This is not necessarily surprising as lean started with a car manufacturer and most lean experiences are in the domain of mature industries, with companies competing in saturated markets. How well does lean apply to startup environments is yet to be seen. The Lean Startup is very much dedicated to web-based ventures, none of which deal with the capital intensive issues of brick and mortar businesses. There clearly is a link between the latter and the former, as witness amazon, and a blend of both is probably the way of the future, but so far, the Lean Startup argument is hard to translate in terms of having a business with manufacturing facilities and a supply chain.

Thirdly, one key difference I see between lean startup thinking and lean thinking is replacing PDCA by build-measure-learn. In many cases, the bias for action sponsored by the book is actually refreshing, but let’s keep in mind that a core aspect of lean is taking the time to fully understand the problem rather than shooting from the hip. As Jeff once put it, it’s aim-aim-aim-aim-fire rather than aim-fire-aim-fire. As I understand it, rapid kaizen is the key to fully grasping the situation – in this sense, build-measure-learn is part of P, but I doubt it’s going to be interpreted that way. I believe that lean thinking does slow down the decision process and that in many cases this is actually a good thing.

Lastly, I’d recommend to any one interested in lean to read the book with care because lean guys clearly have a tendency towards insularity and, dare I say so, navel gazing. I find few things as irritating as lean experts “reinventing” age old industries on paper without the discipline of the gemba – traditions are there for a reason, and of course sacred cows make the best burgers, but first we must understand why they are sacred in the first place! The Lean Startup is exactly the nudge the lean crowd needs to stop and look around. The industrial world is moving faster than ever and in Toyota tradition, “open the window it’s a wide world out there!” Whether the book is orthodox to the “lean thinking” or not (my feeling is not so much), it’s definitely an important book and the oddest thing about it is the author’s own self-description of his approach as “lean”. To lean guys and gals over the world, I’d say heads up and pay attention. This is going to be big!

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