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A Breakdown of the Lean Methodology and How to Use it Within Your Team

Will Lam


It seems like the world moves faster every day. Technology has created a society of instant gratification, and it’s affecting businesses and product teams, too.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for product teams to not only be resourceful but quick and nimble. One Gartner survey found that 32% of respondents said their need to deliver more quickly was the main reason for adopting a product-centric approach, citing “speed to market” as their core metric.

Lean product development helps you reduce your speed to market without sacrificing quality or causing additional stress on your team.

What is Lean Product Development?

Lean product development is a great way to conceptualize and evaluate the value your product provides to users on a continual basis. It focuses on a few core tenets:

  • eliminating or decreasing waste
  • improving efficiency
  • shortening timelines
  • maximizing profitability and ROI
  • providing more customer value when creating new products

Lean product development is different from agile product development because lean focuses on making the most efficient use of resources and processes, while agile focuses on the quickest way to get things done.

One commonly cited example of lean product manufacturing and lean management is Toyota: in 2000, they used lean product development to launch 14 new products — more than GM's entire product offering — with 70,000 employees compared to GM’s 350,000.

The same principles apply to lean product development for software — get more done with fewer resources. But it requires a considerable amount of focus to accomplish; your team will need to understand exactly what they’re responsible for at every stage of the product development lifecycle. Lean product development also places an emphasis on continuous learning; as your team analyzes each iteration of the product and adjusts according to those insights, they’ll gain more expertise and knowledge along the way.

It sounds great in theory, but how do you know when it’s valuable to use lean product development instead of other methodologies? It all starts with a solid understanding of the key principles of lean product development, so you can adopt this approach for your team.

Where did it originate?

Lean product development originated from Toyota in the late 20th century. The Toyota Production System was born from a need to meet the varying tastes of car buyers. Lean manufacturing first became popular in the 1960s, when other car companies like Ford couldn't keep up with the demand for cars.

Americans wanted more than just a black car. They needed different models with different colours and shapes. The change in desire from cars to more variety meant that manufacturers had to start using different materials, production lines, and skilled labor.

Toyota created a system that minimizes waste while maximizing value for the customer. Toyota's values have been applied to software, consumer goods, and other manufacturing processes since then.

How does it work?

Product development teams are responsible for designing new products that improve the lives of their end customers. This is a complex space, where the gap between development, delivery of value, and feedback can be wider than other industries.

It works by having the product development team getting feedback on features by putting the product in the hands of its customers. Designers often rely on short-cycle experimentation, prototypes, set-based design, and emergent practice. This allows for short iterations and fast changes made to the product.

When to use it?

Understanding how and when to use lean product development is important. It’s always great to be more efficient and less wasteful. But there are certain scenarios where lean product development can be especially beneficial to your team:

  • You experience frequent product launch delays. According to one Gartner survey, 45% of product launches are delayed by at least a month. This creates a poor customer experience and gives your brand a bad reputation, which will damage your bottom line over time.
  • Your team is burnt out. Lean product development makes better use of your resources, and that includes your people. A learning environment can also stimulate and motivate your team to push through difficult times together.
  • You have knowledge gaps. Because of its emphasis on learning, lean product development can bridge knowledge gaps and empower your team with more information and skills. When you’re trying to nail down customer value for every new feature you release, these gaps can be potentially disastrous.

Agile vs. Lean

"Agile development" is a product development process characterized by customer needs, iteration, and pull. It focuses on learning through iterative development and visualizing workflow through using scrum boards. Faster feedback from customers is a major benefit of the agile approach to enterprise software. Frequent software and product delivery (instead of delivering large batches) allows teams to quickly incorporate customer feedback into future iterations.

Lean principles are rooted in respect, and the implementation of these values can be challenging. Lean is based on respect for the customer, employees, and the organization. This is what makes it easy to set up in theory, but difficult to implement in practice. It's especially hard to do across larger organizations.

What are the benefits?

Efficiency is essential to success. It helps reduce the time and effort spent on tasks that don’t really benefit customers. Effective, efficient innovation includes knowing which processes are worth investing in, what can be done without, and how to do it all with relative ease.

Lean product development allows companies to build products faster with less waste. Traditional product development processes are inefficient. Lean product development improves communication across departments and eliminates communication silos completely, which leads to the production of better products.

In a lean business, all teams work on the product from beginning to end. This allows the product to evolve and improve.

What are the risks?

Lean product development minimizes risk for teams since they’re getting constant feedback from customers. Rather than making assumptions on what customers want, product managers can be sure they’re building products customers really want.

Common misconceptions

A common misconception of lean product development is that it takes a lot of time to begin and maintain. Any time you begin a new (to you) way of doing things, you have to expect that not everything will go according to plan from the outset. However, once you’re past the “break-in period” with lean, you begin to realize its benefits. Lean is identifying and eliminating waste — improving the flow of processes.

The 5 Key Principles of Lean Product Development

Lean product development’s foundation rests upon a set of principles that guides product teams through the product development lifecycle. These principles essentially walk you through defining the value of your final product for both customers and your team.

1. Define value to the customer

Taking a customer-first approach is a principle of lean because it ensures that every feature you launch will serve your audience, without wasting time and resources working on something customers don’t truly need.

Conduct customer research to understand their needs and values. Analyze customer feedback, and combine data from your product, marketing, and engineering teams to understand what customers think of, and how they interact with, your brand.

Once you understand your customers, map their needs to specific product/feature specs. In a lean approach, many product teams repurpose already-existing software, tools, and products for new uses while actively exploring alternatives. Not only does this kind of repurposing help reduce your development time, but it also gives your team an existing base on which to build. But it’s important to be flexible enough to adjust for customer needs.

“Product Managers need to widen their empathy with customers and move beyond the ideas of existing solutions. This requires the consideration of user needs at the earliest possible stage of a product’s development, before fixed ideas for solutions to the product’s design problems have been established – When you skip this step, you sacrifice quality for speed. This will soon require a v3 of the design system you have just put in place. In the end this you will have wasted more time and money focusing on being fast! and agile! than you would have if you put proper user research methods in place from day 1 of development.” – Chelsea Oswald, Shoelace

2. Identify the value stream and reduce waste

Understanding and mapping new features back to customer needs help you define the end goal. Now it’s time to put together the systems to help you get there.

A lean product development approach relies on a streamlined product development process to mitigate risk, reduce bottlenecks, and create efficient workflows. To do this, you need to set the blueprint for the rest of the team to follow.

Standardize processes and create a culture of documentation to keep teams on the same page and allow for easier collaboration and handoffs.

You might also consider creating a framework, so teams know what goes into a successful idea and can objectively evaluate their own. This reduces confusion and motivates your team to keep things moving, while also ensuring alignment with the larger business goals.

3. Make these value-creating steps efficient

Once you’ve defined these processes, it’s time to make sure they flow smoothly. Tightly integrate the steps from principle #2 and see if bottlenecks remain — sprint retros are a great way to reveal these issues.

In these retros, your team can easily chat through past tasks and work experiences to identify where changes are needed. Just remember that you need to be honest and forthright; optimizing the product development process is only possible when everyone trusts their peers to work together towards the same goal.

Another way to sync with team members and keep everyone apprised of project status is through daily standup meetings or scrums. Scrums provide accountability, transparency, and an opportunity for teams to connect.

When you’re ready to launch your new feature, we recommend using phased or gradual rollouts. This breaks your launch down into smaller steps, and makes it easier to consistently check in on the progress/performance of a launch. Additionally, it’s easy to revert back to the original feature/UI when needed. Using feature flags is the best way to accomplish this.

4. Empower the team

Give team members the chance to own their projects without micromanaging or senior oversight. The Study of Product Team Performance, 2012 found that “high-performing product teams work very closely with members of the executive team and enjoy unwavering support. These product teams are very aware of the company’s business strategy and take steps to ensure tight alignment.”

The folks at Zappos have this down pat.

“The majority of our team can run experiments without even telling me,” says Product Team Lead Andrew Nguyen. “They just need to execute and report on their experiments with a high level of integrity.”

Leaders should be transparent and forthcoming about larger business updates and goals. It’s also beneficial to promote cross-departmental communication and collaboration to encourage more information-sharing and brainstorming. Use tools like Slack to share updates with as many people at once, as well as facilitate 1:1 interaction.

Remember to optimize resourcing, so workloads are balanced and projects are equipped with the expertise they need. Assign a dedicated project manager who understands your people’s strengths and the project’s needs, so they can assemble the right team for the task.

In lean environments, it’s common for people to work on multiple projects at once. Encourage hourly estimates, so no one is over-allocated — burnout is a real issue that managers need to be aware of. Regularly check in to make sure people aren’t overwhelmed with what’s on their plate--both during product launches and status quo weeks.

5. Learn and improve

Lean product development is all about building an environment of continuous iteration, ideation, and learning through analysis.

Product team leads should not only capture and organize information, but they should also proactively share and distribute it within teams. Tell them what the information means and share key learnings and insights. Consider setting up monthly demos to show off individual and team accomplishments, or dedicating a Slack channel for announcing updates and new findings.

Give your team a chance to collect and interpret the data independently. Many product and engineering teams use  DevCycle's A/B testing and experimentation capabilities to run tests and learn from the results, so that they can applying those learnings to new products.

How to move Forward

Lean product development empowers teams with knowledge and efficient processes, so they can mitigate product launch delays and drive more customer satisfaction and profitability. Teams that are resource-strained can use this approach to compete with larger companies with bigger budgets.

Written By

Will Lam