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How Lean is too Lean?

Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about the “Lean Startup” is what exactly “Lean” means.  Eric Ries originally borrowed the the term from Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing principals.  Of the many definitions of the word lean, the one we are most interested in is:

efficient and with no waste

The mistake many people seem to make is to assume that Lean means things like inexpensive and/or fast.  While it can mean those, it all really depends on the type of idea you are pursuing.  Complex problems can be solved efficiently and with no waste and yet still take a lot of time and be very resource intensive.  Sending a person to Mars in the most efficient, least wasteful way is still going to be expensive and time consuming.

As the concept of Lean Startup has gained popularity, numerous events, conferences, classes, and courses have popped up to help people learn about the concepts, principals, and techniques.  These are often short, from a couple hours to a couple days: Hackathons, Startup Weekends, and even “block week” courses at top Universities (like the Lean Launchpad class at Columbia Business School).  Lyle McKeany describes his experience at a couple such events in this great post.

Lyle’s experience and observations jive well with a lot of the feedback I hear from people that attend these events (and my fellow classmates  in the Lean LaunchPad).  I’d like to highlight a few key ideas.

First, the examples that are used in these classes tend to be business that started well before the the whole “Lean Startup” movement began and/or by companies that weren’t really using Lean principals themselves (kinda a chicken or the egg problem).  This isn’t necessarily a criticism, Lean Startup was developed by people like Steve Blank and Eric Ries based on observations of companies they had been involved with before the ideas were formulated.  Indeed, when I read the book it really spoke to me as I felt it summarized well many of the techniques I used in starting my own company even though “Lean Startup” didn’t “exist” back then.

Another common complaint I hear from these events is people go to them with a business idea in mind that they are very excited and passionate about.  They then start the “validation” process and as their idea quickly transforms through the process, it turns into something they are much less excited about.  Thus, people end up either abandoning their idea all together, or they simply ignore what they learned and keep moving forward with their original idea.

But for me, the biggest thing missing from these courses is a careful analysis of how successful companies come up with their ideas.  The Lean Startup process is:

Build > Measure > Learn > Repeat

It all starts with “Build,” but the real question is, what do we build?  And how do we build it?  And, what is the most efficient, least wasteful way to build it?  These questions seem to always be asked, but I have yet to hear a really good answer to them.  It seems to come down to inspiration, intuition, and that magical “ah-ha” moment.

Lyle comes to the conclusion that his idea simply can’t be validated in a weekend.  This is a very fair takeaway, I believe many , many ideas can not. That by no means implies these are bad idea, they just might take some time.  So, the problem is, these courses often become academic exercises rather then the opportunity to test a real world idea.  Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, “practice” makes perfect, and spending a few days practicing validation can be a great way to prepare to do it in the real world.

It’s important to remember “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and very few startups were either.  I’ll explore this more in future posts.