Monday, September 12, 2011

The power of small batches

The following is an excerpt from The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses published by Crown Business. 

In the book Lean Thinking, James Womack and Daniel Jones recount a story of stuffing newsletters into envelopes with the assistance of one of the author’s two young children. Every envelope had to be addressed, stamped, filled with a letter, and sealed. The daughters, age six and nine, knew how they should go about completing the project: “Daddy, first you should fold all of the newsletters. Then you should attach the seal. Then you should put on the stamps.” Their father wanted to do it the counterintuitive way: complete each envelope one at a time. They told him “that wouldn’t be efficient!” So he and his daughters each took half the envelopes and competed to see who would finish first.

The father won the race, and not just because he is an adult.

The one envelope at a time approach is a faster way of getting the job done even though it seems inefficient. This has been confirmed in many studies, including this one (from LSS Academy):

Why does stuffing one envelope at a time get the job done faster even though it seems like it would be slower? Because our intuition doesn’t take into account the extra time required to sort, stack, and move around the large piles of half- complete envelopes when it’s done the other way. It seems more efficient to repeat the same task over and over, in part because we expect that we will get better at this simple task the more we do it. Unfortunately, in process-oriented work like this, individual  performance is not nearly as important as the overall performance of the system.

(If you're skeptical, you're in good company. For a frame-by-frame breakdown of where the time went in that video, see this post.)

But even if the amount of time that each process took was exactly the same, the small batch production approach still would be superior, and for even more counterintuitive reasons. For example, imagine that the letters didn’t fit in the envelopes. With the large- batch approach, we wouldn’t find that out until nearly the end. With small batches, we’d know almost immediately.

All these issues are visible in a process as simple as stuffing envelopes, but they are of real and much greater consequence in the work of every company, large or small. What if it turns out that the customers have decided they don’t want the product? Which process would allow a company to find this out sooner?

Lean manufacturers such as Toyota discovered the benefits of small batches decades ago. When I teach entrepreneurs this method, I often begin with stories about manufacturing. Before long, I can see the questioning looks: what does this have to do with my startup?

But the theory that is the foundation of Toyota’s success can be used to dramatically improve the speed at which startups find validated learning.

Toyota discovered that small batches made their factories more efficient. In contrast, in the Lean Startup the goal is not to produce more stuff efficiently. It is to— as quickly as possible— learn how to build a sustainable business. Think back to the example of envelope stuffing. What if it turns out that the customer doesn’t want the product we’re building? Although this is never good news for an entrepreneur, finding out sooner is much better than finding out later. Working in small batches ensures that a startup can minimize the expenditure of time, money, and effort that ultimately turns out to have been wasted.

Want to know more about how small batches can dramatically change the way you work? Click here to pick up your copy of The Lean Startup.
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