Reflections on the Lean Start Up

Here is a response I gave over on the Lean Edge to a question pertaining to the success of the “Lean Start Up”.

I think there is a lot to like about the book The Lean Start Up and certainly something to learn from it as well. The book has done extraordinarily well in terms of sales and recognition. There are some shortcomings of the book when it comes to actual Lean practices but I think it is more interesting to look at why the book is successful.

For those not familiar the book is organized in the following manner:

Part 1: Vision

1) Start

2) Define

3) Learn

4) Experiment

Part 2: Steer

5) Leap

6) Test

7) Measure

8) Pivot

Part 3: Accelerate

9) Batch

10) Grow

11) Adapt

12) Innovate

13) Epilogue: Waste Not

There is a lot to like about the organization of the book and the practicality of the advice. It certain advocates focusing on the customer, learning, measuring, and improving, etc. These items are in my opinion time tested basics that are very universal and not unique to Lean. The book is also written in fairly clear plain spoken language and avoids the crazy jargon and Japanese terms of Lean (Heijunka, Kanban, Muda, Yokoten, Hansei, Sensei, etc.). The Lean movement has to face up to reality. Using cliquish language has not been the best tactic for acceptance or expanding the message to the masses. In that sense the Lean Start Up is a lot easier to read and digest.

The other big thing the Lean Start Up gets right is tapping into our entrepreneurial spirit of starting up new things from the beginning. Younger people fresh out of college are reluctant to enter into old industries with high levels of competition and low levels of growth. It is far more exciting to thing about how to put small cubicle satellites into space and create a new business model than it is to design a new rear view mirror for example. Also many highly educated motivated people want to make money by getting into companies early on the ground floor and not make money the way their parents did through wages, hard work, and savings.

So in many ways I think this book, its title, contents, and basic message tap into today’s culture better than the older manufacturing lean movement has been able to. It certainly sounds and feels more exciting and creates some passion in that regard. So I think there are lots of things to reflect upon and learn from the success of this movement.

On the could be improved side I will only make a few minor comments. The Lean Start Up needs to speak clearly in terms of profits, sales growth, and strategy even better than it currently does. The Lean movement stumbled here and still spends to much time using terms like flow, value, waste, kaizen, or even the scientific method. That is not enough to ensure direction, growth, or profitability in the long run. However failure to focus on these vital points properly will lead to The Lean Bankruptcy if companies don’t pay enough attention to business fundamentals.

Secondly I think the Lean Start Up could emphasize people development and the role of people (leaders, managers, and employees) in generating improvements more than it does. Not everyone is going to be a millionaire by virtue of participation in a start up. And not everyone is driven by money in the long run. Let’s just be sure to be clear about the importance of human assets especially in a start up company. Thirdly I did not think enough attention was put on the topic of quality in general (design quality, manufacturing quality, service quality, etc.) and that is a big part of the Toyota Production System. The older Lean movement falls short on this topic as well…

However these are minor quibbles with an excellent book with an excellent title and and excellent market niche. There is much more to learn from this topic and its recent success than there is to argue over. I hope the Lean Start Up can create long lasting Lean companies on par with the Toyota Way and Toyota’s decades of success.