What Is Lean?
Intro To Lean
Introduced to North America by Eric Ries in his book entitled The Lean
Startup, then augmented by Ash Maurya in his book, Running Lean, Lean
(capital L!) takes lessons from Toyota Production System design
practices and applied it to new enterprise and project management.
Lean also integrates lessons from Agile development and Customer
What it is, and what it isn’t
Being Lean isn’t about being cheap. It isn’t about cutting corners or
not having a plan or roadmap. Lean means being smart about getting from
point A to point Z with minimal resources.
Lean methodology values efficient use of limited resources and reduction
of waste in order to achieve a goal.
Lean values a scientific and observational based approach to quickly
resolving a problem or creating marketable value.
The Validated Learning Loop
The validated learning loop, or Build-Measure-Learn loop, was codified
by Eric Ries and describes the customer feedback loop that drives
learning in a Lean Startup.
The idea is to build upon a hypothesis, measure the response, derive
qualitative and quantitative data that will allow to refute/validate the
hypothesis. The loop starts again as a new hypothesis is derived from
those lessons. STEM students will likely recognize elements of the
Startups that succeed are those that manage to iterate enough times
before running out of resources. — Eric Ries**
The Lean approach to starting up
Lean and the three stages of a startup
Successful startups often go through three distinct stages:
1. Problem/solution fit
2. Problem/market fit
Lean facilitates cycling through these stages incrementally while
mitigating your expenditures (do more with less).
Example: Writing a book
To better understand the concepts, we’ll observe as a writer plans
the publication of a book. We’ll follow his work in these quote
The writer will iterate, pivot and scale through the delivery of
value (the book) using Lean thinking in order to reduce effort and
concentrate on what his audience wants.
This stage strives to answer the following questions:
- Is it something customers want?
- Will they pay for it? If not, who will?
- Can it be solved?
Using customer development techniques, one can better determine what
problems need solving and how best to address the problems.
Through interviews, feedback, market research, a writer will be able
to identify a subject matter or a plot that his target audience (his
customers) are interested in.
From there, he could build a teaser site that would allow him to
validate the problem/market fit.
The problem/market fit strives to determine if you’ve built something
people actually want.
At this point, we’ve built an MVP that is complete enough to allow us to
validate marketability, but no more. The key to Lean is to do just
enough to validate the hypothesis. Any effort beyond that point is
potential waste, as it may be trashed as you enter your next cycle.
The writer in our example has a teaser site he’s presented to his
early adopters. On this site, he’s set up a crowdfunding model.
Through analytics, he can then determine whether people are willing
to pay for a book that doesn’t exist yet, and how much they’re willing
to invest. He’ll also be able to identify those who aren’t willing to
pay, and use this to document why so he can take action to resolve
How do I accelerate growth?
At this point, it’s all about expanding your business model to reach a
Growth would be based on the findings of the problem/market fit stage.
What made your early adopters so eager to be and remain on board? What
made the others weary of your offering?
Our writer has received initial feedback on the willingness of his
audience to buy his book. He can now use this information to expand
the content based on the feedback.
A validation loop allows him to incrementally determine if he’s on
the right track without wasting effort on content that his audience
doesn’t feel is valuable.
Startup Phases — Visual representation
You stand to learn the most when the probability of the expected
outcome is 50%; that is, when you don’t know what to expect. — Ash
Putting It All Together — The Lean Canvas
The Lean Canvas
Developed by Ash Maurya and based on the Business Model canvas, the tool
is meant to allow a visual representation of a Lean plan.
The size limitation within the frames, especially when it comes to
defining the solution, is meant to force the user to reduce his plan
into the smallest increment possible, in order to focus validated
learning on a small set of hypotheses.
Lean Canvas — Structure and flow
1) Problems and Alternatives
- What are the top 3 problems that your audience is experiencing that
you are attempting to resolve?
- What are the ways that this audience mitigates or evades these
Our writer, through various channels, has identified that his
audience has a hard time finding a centralized, normalized and
reliable source of information on the principles of traditional
Spanish cuisine (mmm, paella!).
He found out that his contacts often fall back to crawling the web,
cobbling together their own understanding of the matter that yields
certain results, but is felt by some to be risky, as experts often
disagree on opinions and terms used to discuss the subject (see: Jamie
Oliver’s recent chorizo-gate).
2) Customer Segments
Identify the various roles that will interact with your product.
- Customers: Those willing to pay to use the product.
- Users: Those willing to consume the output of the product.
Hone in on your early adopters, those prototypical customers that
represent the core group that you want to target in the first
Our writer has identified his target customers. They are mainly
millennials that are open to explore new taste profiles, but are
unwilling to settle for cheap americanized interpretations.
His early adopters are acquaintances that maintain a food related
blog he frequently exchanges with. Their blog gets a lot of daily
visits, which he can capitalize on to extend his reach later.
3) Unique Value Proposition (UVP)
A UVP is a clear statement of the tangible results a customer gets from
using your product or service.
Build your UVP as if you were riding an elevator with a potential
investor. Most elevator rides last on average about 15 seconds. This is
all you get. Make it worth it!
“I offer a comprehensive and practical research on the history and
principles of traditional spanish cuisine in a format that is based on
years of study on the matter. I open the door to amateur and
professional chefs to better understand the subtleties that make
spanish cuisine the rich and complex landscape it is today.”
Once you understand the problem, you are then in the best position to
define a possible solution.
Define a minimally viable product (or MVP) that addresses the core
problems and alternatives that your early adopters, and by extension,
your target audience, have raised.
The box is intentionally left small to force users to restrain
themselves, and not fall into the trap of Entrepreneur’s bias, where the
solution grows into what you think your users want rather than what
consumers are expecting.
Our writer has identified the problems, his core audience and defined
He’s decided that his MVP would be, as a first iteration, a table of
content, made available to his early adopters, that highlight the
details of what he intends to present.
He’ll also publish his professional background in order to reassure
consumers on his position as a subject matter expert.
A company can deliver its value proposition to its targeted customers
through different channels. Effective channels will distribute a
company’s value proposition in ways that are fast, efficient and cost
An organization can reach its clients either through its own channels
(storefront), partner channels (major distributors), or a combination of
Our writer will capitalize on several channels to validate his
His food blog contact will write up an article about the initiative
and direct consumers to the teaser site.
A minimal AdWords campaign will generate traffic to the same site
A social media strategy will allow viral interest for the project.
6) Revenue Streams and Costs
The cost structure represents the financial impact of building your MVP
during the current iteration. This would cover time and material costs,
as well as external services required to reach your goal.
The revenue stream identifies potential influx of money your MVP may
generate. In our example, we identify crowdfunding promises, as some
investors may consider this as a revenue stream that is simply waiting
to be received.
— Promise of purchase from crowdfunding
— Customer Development 40 man hours
— Teaser site creation 40 man hours
— Teaser site hosting 100$ per year
— Domain hosting 20$ per year
— AdWords campaign 2$ per keyword per click, 200$ maximal budget = ~100 clicks.
— Social media campaign 20 man hours
7. Key Metrics
“A startup can only focus on only one metric. So you have to decide
what that is and ignore everything else.” — Noah Kagan
Derive, from your hypothesis, what variable you’ll be using to measure
the validation (or invalidation) of your claims.
Focus on a single metric, so as to not drown in a sea of data. Too much
can be just as damaging as not enough.
Our writer is concentrating on Acquisition, that is attracting a
larger pool of customers, by building an MVP based on initial customer
At a later phase, he may concentrate on Revenue, but this early on in
his venture, his focus is on securing volume he can weed out later, if
Look up Pirate Metrics (AARRR) for more on the subject.
8) Unfair Advantage
What sets you apart from the competition that you customers should keep
in mind when considering your product.
This is the final cell, as it is often the hardest to define.
Most startups would even keep this one blank until later iterations,
since defining your advantage is not easy this early on.
Our writer considers himself an expert on the subject, and may even
have the credentials to back his claim.
But he knows that his target customers don’t buy a reputation. They
want a quality product and aren’t swayed by a cult of personality.
He’ll hold off defining this value until he solidifies his offering
Lean Canvas — Filled out example
But, what happens next?
Once the efforts and costs defined in the plan have all been spent, the
various inputs are then analyzed and lessons are learned.
Those lessons will fuel the hypothesis for the next iteration, which
will pivot its goals towards the conclusions of the previous iteration.
The Validated Learning Loop starts again.
The results are in. The various campaigns that our writer has
launched have proven successful. Most successful of all was the social
media campaign, which generated the most initial and returning
He’ll therefore concentrate the efforts of this next iteration on
that channel, attempting to either improve his acquisition rate or
convert those initial acquisitions into activations.
Sources for this article
The Lean Startup (Amazon Link)
Running Lean (Amazon Link)
Scaling Lean (Amazon Link)
Ash Maurya dives deeper into the Scale phase of a startup with Lean in
mind. Followup to Running Lean, which focused more on the
problem/solution fit and problem/market fit phases.
The Sprint Book (Amazon Link)
Product design methodology developed and made public by Google Ventures
which is designed for rapid development of an MVP and efficient capture
of validated learning.
The 2015 CHAOS Report (Meta-analysis link)
A yearly report on project success rates in the IT world, and the
variables that affected them. The full report is available for purchase
on the Standish Group website.
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