Lean is in these days

lean (lēn), adj. 1. Thin, esp. healthily so; having no superfluous fat.

Lean is in these days, at least for individuals if you believe the labels in the frozen food aisle. The same is true for business, partly due to constrained budgets coming out of recession but also due to the demands of hungry markets and hungrier competition. Manufacturing has been “lean” for a couple of decades, and in 2001 a new approach to programming was officially dubbed “agile” (more-or-less another word for lean). The concept of lean startup, however, is relatively new—described just two years ago by Eric Reis in his book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. To say that the concept has caught on would be a colossal understatement.

In the past, products were painstakingly planned and designed, were manufactured in huge quantities, and were expected to have some longevity on the market. Change tended to be slow and superficial. Today, the large production run is still a goal, but long life in the marketplace is a vanishing dream. Even Apple, the champion and model of meticulous design, supplants its own products almost as quickly as it introduces them.

The lean startup concept can be applied both to new companies and to the new products of established companies. It overlaps product development with production and sales, encouraging introduction of a “minimum viable product” (MVP), something that previously might once have been considered a step on the way to a market-ready product. Marketing a MVP serves two functions: it brings in revenue by selling what would previously have been considered a prototype, reducing the need for startup capital. And it generates market feedback from early users, which can be incorporated into ongoing development of the product.

In a sense, operations like Kickstarter are an extreme form of lean startup, in which products are introduced to the market, and in some cases sold, before they even exist. But the early introduction and sale of physical product was only made possible by changes in technology. Processes like laser cutting of metal and Protomold’s injection molding of plastic using aluminum molds have enabled speedy, low-volume production of market-quality products. And when the market evaluates those products and demands more or different capabilities, CAD lets developers quickly make changes and put the redesigned products right back into production.

In the short time it’s been around, lean startup has developed an enormous fan base. It has been a cover story on Wired magazine. There are over 900 lean startup meetup groups in over 300 cities and over 50 countries around the world. And while these groups have over 200,000 members, it is reasonable to assume that there are many more who are applying the principles of lean startup without attending meetups. You can find more information on lean startup at http://theleanstartup.com/.

Greg Kagan is an independent writer specializing in technology marketing, and is author of his own blog, www.techammer.com.

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