Lean as a tool for new and mature companies


Today, I finished the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Despite the focus on entrepreneurship, I think this book has applications at many levels. First though, I must say that I’ve been using Lean for several years and I walked into this book with an understanding of Lean and how  to apply it at a company. What does Lean mean though? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean cutting staff, reducing the amount of money you have or anything along those lines. It’s a methodology for managing projects, processes and products. It does this by basing decisions on actionable data.

What is actionable data? Well, it’s data that you can do react to quickly if the data is showing trends. This could be a positive trend or a negative trend. If you see something going well and a process is improving over time, (which is abnormal processes typically go out of control over time) then you want to understand how and why it is improving. If it is getting worse over time, you want to understand why and work to improve the process. This isn’t just for machines but also for business processes.

Once you have valid metrics there are several different things you can do. You can simply jump in and try to fix whatever problem is there or you can take a different track. The other track is to do some root cause analysis of the situation. This is called the Five Whys. This is a series of questions that ask Why to understand the real cause of the problem. In one case you may have had a new employee upload something to the production server and it kills the production server. Understanding why might not be as simple as saying, don’t do that again. First you might want to know why the action of the employee took down the server, was it something he did that no one else would have done or was it something else. As you dive down you may realize part of the problem was lack of training but there were issues that would have arisen eventually from someone else. This deeper understanding allows you to make changes at multiple levels rather than installing knee jerk reactions.

That’s a reactionary use of Lean, some other interesting uses of Lean have to deal with experimenting with your product. Ries argues that most companies wait to long to engage customers and put too much effort into the first version of the software. He argues that a company should create a minimum viable product that can be tested to get the basic point across of the end product. Doing this early allows for experimentation with customer feedback. In the software world this is pretty easy to do. You can get to something that early adopters can use and then test changes. As you can route different users to different versions of your website for the product you can have slightly different tests to see what increases the metric that matters. Getting people to continue using your product, but you need to have very targeted metrics to understand what is actually happening with your software. If you use the incorrect metric you will do a lot of work that isn’t driving usage and isn’t driving your revenue.

If you decide to change the way users interact with your GUI, it would be useful to have a goal metric to truly understand if the GUI is an improvement over the previous GUI. This could be tracking the number of clicks it takes to get to an important function. The number of times the user uses your product, the number of times a new user uses the product, but stops using a specific GUI. Once you see your metric moving in the correct direction and you can be sure that it is the result of your changes, then you should end you experiment understand why the users reacted the way they did and try to learn what you should test next.

The early goal is rapid experimentation with purpose and data to back up the decisions you make. These techniques will work with any company, but will also be very successful for a startup.

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