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Lean Innovation: What Manufacturers Can Learn From the Tech Sector’s Appropriation of Lean Thinking

Team of Computer Engineers Lean on the Desk and Choose Printed Circuit Boards to Work with, Computer Shows Programming in Progress. In The Background Technologically Advanced Scientific Research Center.
Credit: iStock/gorodenkoff

When most people think of lean processes, the prevailing attitude is that the goal is to optimize things in a step-by-step approach. The result that companies using lean methods can look forward to is incremental improvements brought about by the elimination of waste.

Individuals who stick with this definition often assert that lean principles oppose innovation. That's because “innovation” is typically considered a product-based form of invention that causes disruption. Lean manufacturing is all about following well-defined processes and figuring out how to make them better. Innovation, on the other hand, usually occurs by uprooting current processes or blatantly not following them.

It may appear that lean manufacturing and innovation are opposed. However, some analysts assert that when companies recognize the compatibility between lean principles and innovation, they will accelerate past their competition.

The basic idea is this: People who innovate have fantastic ideas, but it's lean thinking that can turn them into realities. Companies that are familiar with the process-driven approach of lean manufacturing and are willing to become comfortable with moving more quickly and embracing experimentation have an opportunity to create competitive advantage. To illustrate how this might work, let’s look at how the tech sector is blending the two approaches to great effect.

How Does the Tech Sector Apply Lean Thinking?

Lean thinking originated in the manufacturing sector. However, some technology companies follow an appropriated version of lean thinking, commonly called lean innovation. This typically means companies collect customer feedback and use it to discover, create and implement new ways to deliver more value to them. Although lean innovation has a waste-reduction element, it prioritizes experimentation over elaborate, well-defined processes.

Some well-known social media channels, as well as many Silicon Valley startups, embody a "fail fast" or "move fast and break things" culture that fits into lean innovation because they develop new ideas and test them rapidly. Doing this increases the likelihood they can meet customer needs before other companies do, but it doesn't necessarily mean they will enjoy universal success.

When tech companies use lean innovation, one of the main goals is to offer the value customers want and to do it before their competitors. However, they usually don't roll out new features to everyone at the same time. Companies including Google, Flickr, Facebook and Etsy deploy what's called a dark launch. It involves revealing new features to a small group, then getting feedback before offering them to a wider audience.

One of the positive things about the nature of the internet — and social media in particular — is how companies can gather people's opinions without officially asking for them. Once new features roll out from a popular site or company, social media feeds usually explode with comments from individuals who want to weigh in with their thoughts. Tech businesses often create official surveys too, but the feedback starts flowing in before people fill those out.

What Lessons Can Manufacturers Learn from the Tech Sector’s Application of Lean Innovation?

When Henry Ford applied lean manufacturing principles to the Model T, the method allowed building more than 15 million automobiles during a 19-year production run. However, one of the downsides was minimal variability in the vehicles, and it was difficult to change something as simple as the color. Using lean innovation alongside lean manufacturing allows a manufacturer to become more responsive to customer needs.

If manufacturing companies start using lean innovation, they will substantially reduce the risk of creating things no one wants by listening to what customers ask for, and then delivering it.

Some companies apply lean innovation by including potential customers in their research efforts. For instance, a small New Mexico company called Trotting On Innovations LLC has invented and developed products that benefit the supplemental oxygen community, an expanding market. However, inventor Middy McFarland, proprietor of Trotting On Innovations, was looking for a better way. McFarland had attended New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership programs such as Lean Green Manufacturing, Value Stream Mapping, and 5S System Work Place Organization. The New Mexico MEP encouraged inventors to practice their elevator speeches at these meetings so they will be prepared to approach people for market research.

Soliciting external feedback is one example of how manufacturers can meet their goals. It's even better if the comments come from the people who use the products every day. Just as the tech industry rolls out features to a select few, manufacturers can reach out to a user base through free samples to a restricted group of individuals. These can be people who are part of a loyalty program or those who agree to give detailed insights about their usage experiences.

When manufacturers apply lean innovation, they learn lessons by tuning into what consumers have to say. By using these resources wisely, they reduce the likelihood of spending too much time and energy developing something that's not appropriate for the market. They will also realize that, occasionally, development that appears inefficient is actually OK. Releasing things faster might lead to more failures, but it can also fuel impactful innovation.

Successfully Applying Lean Innovation Requires Having a Willingness to Change

Getting on board with lean innovation, like tech companies do, might make manufacturers balk at first. However, if they better understand how innovation can coexist with the traditional principles of lean manufacturing, they may find it's easier to cater to customers' needs.

It's also essential that manufacturing companies interested in lean innovation understand that minor failures are inevitable along the path to developing new features or products at a faster-than-usual pace. However, those pitfalls could also help companies overcome obstacles and improve their methods for future production based upon applying lessons learned.

When companies are willing to make changes in their processes and see experimentation as a good thing, they will be well on their way to using lean innovation as a competitive advantage.

Connect with your local MEP Center today to learn more about how lean innovation can provide your company with a competitive advantage.


About the author

Brian Lagas

Brian Lagas manages NIST MEP's Continuous Improvement, Toyota Kata, Sustainability and Export initiatives.

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