3 Lean Thinking Principles

How many of us have had an idea we absolutely knew would change our life or business for the better? How many of our lives or businesses are not any better after pursuing the idea? Judging by the number of ads for lightly used exercise equipment on Craigslist, many of us have had this experience. 1370521_67003937

Several years ago some colleagues and I found a product overseas that we absolutely knew would transform our business. We borrowed short-term money from our investors and ordered several containers of product. It was a happy day a few years later when we finally sold, at a loss, the rest of that first and only shipment.

I’m not saying we should never pursue ideas just because they might not work. However, the following lean thinking principles can save us from wasted time and money:

1. Start Small

Never be afraid to start. But start small. Don’t go all in before testing the idea. Do you want to expand your business? Rent equipment for a while before purchasing. Do you want to start exercising at home? Go to the gym for a while to see what works for you, and most importantly, if you’ll stick to it, before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on home equipment.

I enjoy mountain biking, and I’d like to start going with my 10-year-old son. We’d love new bikes with all the best components. However, I don’t know if it’s going to catch on. I recently bought used, basic bikes so we could try it out. If we end going often and progressing to more challenging terrain, we will consider upgrading.

2. Evaluate and Test

After you start, evaluate the results and test improvements. Talk to customers and make changes based on their feedback.

As of this writing, my son and I have gone mountain biking once. It was a beautiful clear day in Corner Canyon high above Draper, Utah. We had a blast, but my son was terrified of the narrow trails on the steep mountainside. Also, we haven’t been gone for 3 weeks due to weather and other commitments. So far it looks like we won’t go often, and we won’t be tackling highly technical terrain any time soon.

3. Build Slowly

As you get evidence that your idea is working, continue the cycle of slowly building and evaluating. Often your idea will take a completely different shape than what you originally imagined.

The cases of Webvan and Amazon Fresh illustrate the benefits of lean thinking. Developing profitable grocery delivery services has long been a vexing problem.

Webvan thought they solved this problem in the late 1990’s. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars and were in the process of building 26 different $30 million warehouses around the United States. All of this was before they proved the concept in 1 city. As a result, an untested idea ended in a 2001 bankruptcy as one of the most spectacular failures of the dot-com era.

In contrast, AmazonFresh has been providing grocery delivery services in the Seattle area since 2007. Only after 6 years of testing and refining their concept have they expanded into only two more cities: Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In summary, don’t be afraid to start, but think lean by starting small and building slowly while evaluating carefully as you go.

For more information about getting started, see The Power of Starting Something Stupid by my friend and colleague Richie Norton, and Start by Jon Acuff.

For more information about lean thinking, I recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Question: How do you apply lean thinking principles in your life and business?