Leading Lean Leaps of Faith

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase

-Martin Luther King JR

No I am definitely not a Lean guru, but yes I am a Lean project lead within a big corporate publisher. As such I have been involved in many ideation and lean projects, so I speak from experience when saying that moving away from a Waterfall process to a Lean organization is not something which corporates do very easily. Usually they connect Lean to some sort of ideation or innovation track within the company. Some corporates have tried building their own ideation / innovation lab (I-labs), others use ideation campaigns to foster innovation within their organization or get together with user groups to generate new ideas. None of these ways is wrong, but they all show that moving away from waterfall is not a very easy thing to do, but why?

What do corporates face?

A changing market and new competitors
Corporates have usually been active in their markets for a long time. They have the market knowledge, know their competitors and have developed traditional ways to approach that market. Now since the last 10 years or so their markets are changing rapidly. This fact requires them to develop new ways of approaching those markets. However corporates are very much hierarchically structured. Which in effect means that new ideas have to pass many levels of approval before you can even think of starting with development. Startups have sprouted up to close the corporate gap of time to go to market. They can very quickly come up with a new product ideas and move those to the market. This means that startups have become the new competitors for corporates.

Budget constraints

Corporates are used to budgeting for the longer term. A short term budget is 1 or 2 years, a long term budget 3–5 years. But currently the market needs are changing every few months. So even a short term budget is behind the facts.

Resistance to change

Teams who have worked for years according to the waterfall process are used to following a step by step process. Lean requires them to constantly iterate. Lean is also about involving all teams so teams which have not been involved in the development process are drawn in. Constant iteration and moving away from the traditional well-known way of working often leads to insecurity. And insecurity may lead to resistance. Why move away from something which has worked for years?

These are just a few things corporates have to face when moving to a lean process and organization.

How do corporates become lean?

Management buy in

First of all corporate management has to be convinced that the risks of standing still are greater than the risks of moving into a new direction. The other thing is to appoint part of the budget to Lean. Free up resources is another thing. But the best way of promoting Lean throughout the company, is by actively participating in Lean projects to make visible to the rest of the company that what you say is what you do.

Take Silos down

A corporate company working with the waterfall process works in silos. Each team does their part of the process: development, finance, sales and marketing. None in is involved in the entire process from start to end. Lean works the other way round. All teams are involved from the beginning and all are involved in each part of the Lean process.

When there is resistance it is important to educate the resistant teams. That Lean means everyone, even the mailman, can contribute. Give them the time to gain experience with Lean. How can you do this? To have early adopters in the company act as moderators to the other teams. Invest time in colleagues and they will come around.

Once you have all of the team’s buy in then you are ready to startup Lean.

Startup Lean

Each new idea within the corporate company should follow the Lean process. That meansstart out with an idea which can be as vague as “Grow our Leads database”. Then go through rounds of pivoting. Pivoting with the business model canvas, the empathy map or any other tool which helps to make your idea more concrete. Pivoting rounds should only take a limited amount of time. 2 weeks is better than 1 month. Scoring ideas after each round will help to divest early. Once the idea is more concrete you can start to visit customers.

Involve customers

Customer involvement is very important in the Lean process. They are the outside team which helps you to see if the product you are envisioning is feasible or in other words if there is a need for it. You can continue visiting customers after each pivot round. During these customer rounds it is important to revisit the business model canvas and do the scoring cards. Again this will help to divest the good from the bad ideas early in the process. Good being those which bring in the money, the bad being those for which is no market.

If an idea is good enough to move to the next stage you can start to build.

Build Lean

By building I mean building a business case and / or a minimal viable product. The Lean process and organization also applies here. There is actually no difference between what you do in the build phase as you to what you do in the ideation phase: involve all teams, work together as a team, pivot often, involve customers and divest early.

The most important thing is that you build new products which bring revenue to the company.

But before you can do this it’s all about daring to take that leap, a leap away from the waterfall. And that requires a lot of faith.