Last week I had one of those rambling and engrossing conversations that make me love what I do. While speaking with a founder and CEO, I mentioned offhand something about ‘lean’ and he stated ‘I don’t really believe in the whole lean startup approach. It’s just an excuse for people to launch crappy products’. This fellow recently founded his second tech company after completing a successful exit, but much like myself he comes from a business background. His take was that people use lean as an excuse for launching half built or buggy functionality. Although his perspective may have been skewed, it was derived from the observations of a smart and informed person. He thought lean was used as a justification for laziness, and in many cases he is right.
Now let’s be clear; you can work all day and still be lazy. I can waste hours mindlessly toying with assumptions in my excel model rather than buckling down to do challenging and necessary work. In the same manner a developer can build some breezy but half-finished functionality into their product, throw it out to the market and say ‘I know it doesn’t work perfectly, but I am being lean so I didn’t want to waste time working on the last 10% if no one even wants this’. If people do not go bananas for this addition then the developer can scrap it and pat themselves on the back for being on the cutting edge of entrepreneurial theory.
That is not lean, that is lazy. Lean is not the safety blanket that justifies someone doing what comes easily to them without spending the time to better themselves and their company. There is something to be said for people building a career around their natural talents, but that is a whole other topic.
My colleague David Kovksy once stated that ‘being lean means creating, executing, and learning from experiments from the very beginning to make sure you build the right thing’. Although we could go back and forth on some of the nuance, this is akin to arguing which Beatle’s album is the best (it’s Abbey Road). The important point is that lean is hard work. Developing a product in a lean manner is not the process of getting into your comfort zone and grinding out what comes naturally. Being lean means that you build something with a specific purpose and an understanding of you want to learn from the data your users generate. It means that once you have launched some functionality, it is not a matter of saying ‘oh, people seem to like this’, but taking a critical eye to the data and generating the validated learning that will ensure you are providing what your users truly want.
The terminology ‘lean’ came of age in modern manufacturing, but the principles have been understood in certain contexts for much longer. Though some of the applications are new, it is intuitive to want your resources (time, money, raw materials, etc) to be employed in a manner that drives towards a logical and verifiable goal. A marketer can spend all day sending pithy tweets and say that they are building a brand. That is lazy. They can track metrics for each tweet such as the time of day, length of tweet, positioning or even tone and craft an experiment to see how this increases brand engagement (and hopefully revenue) and learn from their efforts. This is lean.
Lean is hard. Lean is work. Lean removes any abstract notions of value creation and forces people to be diligent and backup their claims. Rather than being the safety blanket that protects you from hard truths, lean is the hand that rips this blanket off and forces you to look at the evidence, good or bad, that your efforts are worthwhile and that you are building something truly valuable.