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PDCA, BML, TMC: Learning Lean From Lean

by Matthew Savas
August 7, 2014 | 4 Comments | Post a Comment | Permalink

Lean, Lean UX, and Lean Startup – there is a lot of “lean” out there. Is this good or bad? This is the question I raised last month at a “lean coffee” (yes, there is even lean coffee – and it’s quite fun). I learned this earlier this summer at a talk by Lean UX and Lean Startup pioneer and design thinker, Will Evans. Evans came to LEI to give a talk, “Lean Startup and Lean UX: The Exaptation of Lean Thinking to a New Context.”

I am new to Lean. I began my journey last fall as an MBA student learning the Toyota Production System and am a student of – for lack of a better term – “Traditional Lean.” Upon listening to lecture after lecture about miraculous lean turnarounds, and reading the lean canon (The Machine that Changed the World, Lean Thinking, The Toyota Way, etc.) I was convinced that “Traditional Lean” must be the correct way to run an organization.

So when Will Evans came to talk, I was skeptical. But my skepticism was unfounded. My doubt stemmed entirely from the topic of his presentation: Lean UX (user design) and Lean Startup. Instinctively, I had adopted a tribal mentality, assuming (with no evidence) that my Lean must be better than his. It took but ten minutes of listening to Evans for me to realize my stupidity.

Lean, Lean UX, and Lean Startup are founded on the same principal: improvement through the scientific method. Each group just spells “lean” a different way: PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust), BML (Build, Measure, Learn), and TMC (Think, Make, Check).

Moreover, Will introduced an idea central to Lean UX and Lean Startup that I’ve found largely absent from traditional Lean: experimentation with customers. Identifying whether a product fulfills customer needs via rapid feedback made perfect sense; rather than waste months building a product no one ultimately wants, build and adjust prototypes based on measurable consumer feedback. At the talk, John Shook was passionate about the way that Lean Startup/Lean UX brings rigor to the process of specifying value. "This new community has provided very user-friendly processes for how you identify value," he said. Lean often focuses on how to continuously improve processes--yet has little rigor about validated learning. 

Likewise, a core concept of “traditional Lean” ostensibly missing from Lean UX and Lean Startup worlds is people development. Traditional lean accomplishes this via the A3 process, whereby a worker takes complete ownership of a problem as a coach facilitates via inquiry rather than direction. Lean UX and Lean Startup, on the other hand, appear to be all about building products rather than people.

During lean coffee people from both sides/communities admitted to these flaws: Traditional Lean must work harder at engaging customers and Lean UX/Startup must work harder at developing people.

Hence, my question. We all stand upon the same foundation and can strengthen it by learning from one another. Rather than falling into the trap of tribal thinking, as I had, let’s keep our minds open. As any good lean practitioner should, observe and crunch the data objectively. Should you discover a best practice in another community, adopt and improve upon it. Don’t dismiss it.

So, back to the original question: is this burst of Lean good or bad? I think it’s great. Any opportunity to learn is hardly a bad thing, especially when our opportunities shore up weaknesses. As practitioners replace allegiance to a specific type of Lean and replace it with allegiance to general PDCA, the learning potential becomes boundless.

Maybe most importantly, if we can get on the same page, we won’t need to memorize another acronym. 

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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban August 07, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks for writing this, Matthew.

I had similar skepticism when I first heard Eric Ries talk about The Lean Startup at MIT in late 2009. I was afraid it was going to be just a buzzword, but there's good Lean thinking there... not just PDCA/PDSA (build-measure-learn) but also "respect for people" (using the 5 whys and not just blaming people).

I've followed The Lean Startup tribe quite a bit. Like the earlier days of Lean Manufacturing or Lean Healthcare, people seem to gravitate toward tools and they try to cherry pick a tactic or two and they often ignore the people side (in spite of Ries and others doing a good job of explaining what Lean should be).

I agree we should try to avoid silos and tribes (or subtribes). It's great to see John Shook collaborating with Lean Startup gatherings, etc. I was happy to hear that Will visited LEI.

We'll all figure this out together.

I do wish, however, that folks could use the existing terms (like PDCA/PDSA) instead of inventing their own. This does create new acronyms and it can cause confusion or create exclusivity instead of understanding and inclusion.



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Matthew Savas August 08, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Thanks for the comment, Mark. It will be interesting to see if the Lean Startup community actually evolves the meaning of "Lean." I have a classmate participating in the MassChallenge, a summer startup accelerator in Boston. He's observed that Lean Startup is the must-read title and spoke that other participants were surprised when they heard lean wasn't just about software. This made me think that there is a purposeful role for interaction between these two communites. Because clearly there is a divide and it may only widen from here on out.

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Mark Graban August 08, 2014
I didn't mean to sound negative about the book "The Lean Startup" and the concepts. There are some nice additions to general Lean thinking there. Even Toyota has been embracing and experimenting with some of the new product design concepts.

Yeah, I've also heard Lean Startup devotees who don't realize the Toyota roots. That tells me they haven't really read Eric's book since he makes those connections very clear and cites Ohno, etc.

As with Lean manufacturing and Lean healthcare, there are sometimes pretenders and wannabes who read an article or two (not even a whole book) and then embrace just one tool instead of the whole philosophy and managment system.


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Tom Ehrenfeld August 07, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Excellent piece, terrific central point about lean being many things, and finding a way to communicate a core idea (improving the process of determing value) is key. Great article!

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