Lean Production inspired Lean Startup
I’ve explored the similarities of Lean Startup to Design Thinking. Both approaches support innovation by maintaining a focus on actual user need and emphasize frequent iteration to ensure that the work being done meets that need.
Lean Startup takes its inspiration from Lean Production which in turn has roots in auto manufacturing in post-war Japan.
Whereas American manufacturers could produce enormous quantities of parts in their large plants for economy of scale, Japanese manufacturers recovering from the destruction of WWII were forced to make small batches.
Rather than embracing rework as a cost of business, Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers sought to discover flaws early on, using small batch sizes and inspections at several intervals within the production process.
The effort to make incremental improvements to each step of the production process is called kaizen, the Japanese word for improvement.
So if kaizen and lean production go hand-in-hand, and lean production inspired lean startup, which is credited as an engine of innovation, why is it that Japan has such a reputation for stifling innovation?
Is improvement innovation?
To this day, Japanese products have a deserved reputation for quality. Toyota produces cars (also under their luxury brand Lexus) are renowned for worry-free operation. It is natural that a nation that derived so much success from continuous improvement would stick with it.
Today, continuous improvement is embraced by car manufacturers worldwide. While Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers remain at the top of quality and reliability surveys, all cars in general are far more reliable than in decades past. This diminishes the competitive advantage to be derived from reliability alone.
If you replace an axe’s handle and then the axe’s head, is it still the same axe? One thing’s for sure, it’s still an axe. And here lies the rub – Japanese kaizen tends to focus on improvement and not change.
Design Thinking and Lean Startup both support entirely novel ideas by seeking feedback on early expressions of design such as prototypes. They are not only for improving existing products and services, they support the creation of entirely new ones.
Maybe the answer isn’t an axe
Design Thinking and Lean Startup both emphasize the value of iteration as a way to reduce the cost of failure and thus permit more aggressive risk taking. Instead of examining how can an axe be improved, these methods permit a more innovative examination of the process of cutting wood.
Instead of a better axe, is there a better way?