Does Lean create Innovative Companies?


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Many people only view Lean as a methodology to reduce waste, improve flow and drive internal processes. Many have even hijacked the term customer and created “internal customers” and lose sight of the true customer and the marketplace. These companies do not recognize Lean as a business process that strengthens and grows a company through collaborative learning. However, it is this model in conjunction with the concept of “Pull” that are the fundamental concepts of Lean that provides the value to innovation .

The ever increasing platforms of co-producing, open-innovation, co-creation is moving innovation from an exclusive internal platform to a more external platform. True innovation is not happening inside the 4 walls of an organization but out in the customers’ playground. As Voice of Customer tools get more sophisticated, we are not reacting and thinking of the next step needed to delight our customers, we are allowing them to show us the way. Organizations may lead in “design” but in use it is the customer and in use is where the value is derived (Service Dominant Logic Thinking Vargo and Lusch,2006).

Many would argue the Lean is about incremental improvement. It does not allow for breakthrough thinking. I agree that SDCA and PDCA and even the continuous mindset may not deliver breakthrough thinking. However, like most things you start one step at a time. The culture of Innovation starts with culture of continuous improvement. To start with breakthrough thinking is very difficult and typically not successful. You cannot just turn it on. So starting with PDCA and a continuous improvement is the only successful way, to create this “i (little i) culture.

Ramping it up and truly doing breakthrough thinking, the big ‘I” is when you must engage and understand your customer/market extremely well. This could be a description of the culture a Lean company from a Scott Anthony FastCompany Post on innovation:

A classic example of this is how a calligraphy class inspired Apple legend Steve Jobs’s emphasis on typography on early computers. The professors then detail what they call the “Innovator’s DNA,” four time-tested approaches successful innovators follow to gather stimuli that spur these connections:

  • Questioning: Asking probing questions that impose or remove constraints. Example: What if we were legally prohibited from selling to our current customer?
  • Networking: Interacting with people from different backgrounds who provide access to new ways of thinking.
  • Observing: Watching the world around them for surprising stimuli.
  • Experimenting: Consciously complicating their lives by trying new things or going to new places.

I like to use the term EDCA learned from Graham Hill to designate the Explore aspect of Lean. I view it as more of Design Type thinking content that allows for that collaborative learning cycle with a customer. This is a link to my blog post on the tools of SDCA, PDCA, EDCA:

Why Lean? Design and Innovation takes place outside the four walls and Lean can be the methodology of choice. It drives both the Little i and the Big I. The first and foremost reason is that it allows the 1st step for innovation. Lean is the primary driver for the little i DNA. As a result, it allows for that culture to spread and create the DNA for the BIG I. Without Lean and the little i, you may never start!

My upcoming Podcast with Dan Jones dives into this type of Lean Thinking. Review these past post to provide some additional background, Thinking Back from the Customer –Lean Summit 2011 and The Challenge of Lean with Dan Jones.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


  1. Marvelous! The last para of your blog was a surprise to me as you explained everything with a concept of small I and big I. I believe that Lean and Innovation all together can travel a long road as it is Lean that helps in bringing a defined structure to the process of Innovation. Lean is also a factor that can shorten the distance between an Idea generation and development process. If you take a deeper look into the concept then you will be surprised to see that both Innovation and Lean share a common objective and that is client satisfaction. At last I would like to conclude that Lean reduces uncertainty involved in the process of Innovation.

  2. Thanks for the comments and yes, I agree with you. Could you expand on your thoughts, how Lean reduces uncertainty?


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