Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is Lean about the Lean Startup?

The first step in a lean transformation is learning to tell the difference between value-added activities and waste. That foundational idea, so clearly articulated in books like Lean Thinking, is what originally led me to start using the term lean startup. I admit that I haven't always done such a good job emphasizing this connection; after all, there's an awful lot to the lean startup theory, and I'm always struggling with how best to explain it fully. Luckily, I've had some excellent backup.

The following is a guest post for Startup Lessons Learned by the legendary Kent Beck. One of the most amazing things about the past year has been the opportunity to meet many legends and personal heroes. And yet, I have a confession to make. Many of these heroes have proved disappointing: some have been defensive, stand-offish, and downright mean. Not so with Kent Beck. 

Longtime readers will recall how I first met him. I was giving my first-ever webcast on the lean startup. For those who've heard it, it contains a length discourse on the subject of agile software development and extreme programming, including its weaknesses when applied to startups. Now, this webcast was packed, hundreds of people were logged in. The chat stream was flying by in my peripheral vision, a constant distraction, hard to focus on. As I'm pontificating about agile, I see the name Kent Beck in my peripheral vision. I was truly terrified, and I almost completely lost my train of thought. Was that really the Kent Beck? I assumed he was there to refute my critique of extreme programming, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, of all the gurus and leaders I've had the chance to meet, he has been by far the most open-minded. He instantly understood what I was saying, and since that first encounter, our exchanges have made me a lot smarter. 

So when he weighed into a recent thread on the Lean Startup Circle mailing list on this very subject, I asked if he would expand his comments into a guest post. The following is the result. - Eric

Names matter. By pulling in a web of associations, names help people quickly assess ideas. Chosen well, they draw attention from people likely to appreciate the ideas they identify.

There is a dark side to naming. When a name is misused, as with some of the claims to "agility" extant, the initial interest is followed by disappointment when customers discover there is no corned beef between the slices of rye. It's tempting to ride the coattails of a popular idea by using a word with momentum, but in the end it backfires for the idea and the word.

The naming question has been raised about the "lean" in Lean Startups. Are lean startups really lean or was the word chosen because it is widely recognized and popular?

I had a background in lean manufacturing (book knowledge, anyway) and lean software development (hands on) before encountering Lean Startups. When I read Eric's blog I immediately felt at home: the principles were the same even though some of the practices were different.

The foundation of TPS (Toyota Production System) is that people need to be (and feel) productive and society needs people to produce value. This value is evident in Lean Startups. We are all engaged in creating valuable (we hope) services for society in some form or other and simultaneously meeting our own need to feel significant and productive.

Another basic principle of TPS is respect for people. One form of respect is not wasting the time of people who are creating new products and services. Another form of respect is inviting customers to be part of the process of creating those products and services. At times on this lean startup mailing list I hear an undercurrent of "ha, ha, I got you to give me feedback on this fake landing page even though I gave you nothing in return," which is a violation of this principle of respect. Overall, though, Lean Startups seems far more respectful to me than the "build something big and shove it down customers throats" model I have participated in (and failed with) over and over.

TPS focuses on eliminating waste. Rather than try to create value faster (I'm thinking of Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" or Lucille Ball's Candy Factory scene), a lean organization creates more value by eliminating waste. This principle appears throughout Lean Startups, starting with the biggest waste of all in a startup--building something no one uses.

A TPS tactic that familiar in lean startups is reducing inventory. If you can split a feature in half and get good feedback about the first half, do it. The lack of inventory enables quick changes of direction, something seen in Lean Startups in the pivot and in TPS in the ability of a single production line to create multiple vehicles. I haven't seen an equivalent of the systematic elimination of work-in-process inventory in Lean Startups, however. (Those who are interested in work-in-process might want to take a look at Work in small batches and Continuous deployment - Eric)

Some specific TPS practices appear in Lean Startups. A/B testing is set-based design. 5 Whys is straight out of the Toyota playbook. Conversion optimization is a form of kaizen. Whether practices work directly is not as important as whether the principles are alive, though. I see the lean principles throughout Lean Startups.

Is the "lean" in Lean Startups an illegitimate attempt to steal some of the "lean foo"? I don't think so. It doesn't look precisely like manufacturing cars, but the principles are shared between the Lean Startups and a lean manufacturing system like TPS, and to some extent even the practices. I expect the cross-fertilization to continue, even as Lean Startups discover what is unique about the startup environment and what calls for a unique response.
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