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Introduction to The Lean Mindset: Ask the Right Questions

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Mary Poppendieck and Tom Poppendieck, authors of The Lean Mindset, show how lean companies really work and how a lean mindset is the key to creating stunning products and delivering amazing services.
This chapter is from the book

Back in the 1990s, when open source was an outlier and eBay was a startup, most people believed that economic transactions—at least important ones—required a trustworthy company to back them up. And trustworthy companies required a management structure to make sure that important work got done.

When economists first stumbled upon Linux, their instinctive reaction was “This is impossible!”1 How can a deeply complex operating system that was developed and maintained by volunteers be reliable enough for widespread adoption by businesses? But today Linux, along with GNU, is arguably the most successful operating system in the world. Apache HTTP Server has powered over 60% of all Web servers since 2000. Sendmail and its commercial derivatives deliver 65% of e-mail worldwide. All this was accomplished without traditional management structures or work practices.

eBay faced a different dilemma; it needed to find a way to create trust between buyers and sellers who were strangers. The company devised a review and ranking system that quickly exposed bad behavior. This widely imitated reputation system has kept instances of fraud in consumer-to-consumer transactions amazingly low, paving the path for a broad range of trust-based businesses.

While the Internet was growing up, it was used mostly by scientists. They developed it into a tool to support the way they worked; it helped them find information, share knowledge, collaborate with peers, and establish a reputation. By the time the Web became available for commercial use in the mid-1990s, it was a well-developed research tool, and its capabilities nudged newcomers toward the same work practices that scientists used. So it should be no surprise that early users of the commercial Internet tended to favor the academic model of working, which is light on management but strong on guidance by a master in the field; light on efficiency and strong on experimentation; light on proprietary knowledge while strongly encouraging information sharing and collaboration across disciplines.

Early Internet users included many software developers, who were comfortable with the primitive user interfaces available at the time. A group of developers used the Internet as a collaboration platform to spawn a movement aimed at changing the work practices commonly used in software development. They lobbied for a customer-focused, team-based, experimental approach to their work, mirroring the academic practices already supported by the Internet. Over time these agile development practices gained widespread acceptance and emerged as a credible—even superior—approach to developing software-intensive products. It turns out that the academic approach to learning works quite well for creating innovative new products and services.

The arc of change toward collaborative work practices2 has followed the growing sophistication and accessibility of Web-based tools that support knowledge sharing and collaboration. Consider Karen, our oldest granddaughter, who is about to head off to college. She is perhaps the quintessential digital native: proficient at surfing the Internet before she was ten, posting her thoughts on Facebook by 12, engaged in a stream of text messages for several years. It won’t be long before Karen and her cohorts will be the only kind of college graduates available to fill the jobs that our organizations create.

Digital natives have been immersed in an environment of readily available knowledge and instant access to colleagues for as long as they can remember. They know how to leverage the advantages of this environment, and they will expect to find it in their workplace. They will expect easy, transparent access to information; they will expect to collaborate with a wide range of people; they will expect anywhere, anytime access to their network of peers; they will probably not make much distinction between work and personal activities; they will certainly expect to be trusted.

Of course, organizations should not blindly cater to the expectations of the new kids in the company. But it turns out that the academic approach to working is a good model for bringing out the best in knowledge workers of all ages. The kids are on to something that works really well—for everyone.

This is a book about the design, development, and delivery of exceptional products and services. Therefore, it is a book about creating work environments where Karen and her colleagues routinely leverage a growing body of knowledge and multiple perspectives to create and launch brilliant products and services. It is a book about learning: learning about customers and creating experiences they love. It is about discovering effective ways to develop and deliver those experiences. Finally, this is a book about gaining the insight and adaptability to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Lean Is a Mindset

Lean is a mindset—a mental model of how the world works. In this book we present a mental model of how to design and deliver amazing products that delight customers. We start with two foundational questions: What is the purpose of a business? What kind of work systems are best for accomplishing that purpose? Next we explore ways to create an environment that energizes the people whose intelligence and creativity are essential to creating great products. Then we turn our attention to the process of creating products and services that work well and delight customers. We move on to consider efficiency—because this is a book about lean, after all, and lean has always been associated with efficiency. We demonstrate that genuine efficiency in product development is about developing the right product, creating a steady flow of new knowledge, and linking the design and delivery processes together to gain rapid customer feedback. Finally, we move beyond efficiency to innovation and discuss how great products come from changing the focus . . . from productivity to impact . . . from predictability to experimentation . . . from efficiency to decentralization . . . and from product to problem.

Through research results and case studies, the book builds a mental model of how lean design and development should look and feel in order to foster a lean mindset in organizations that create products and services. The case studies in the book are not to be emulated so much as absorbed, because developing a mindset is not about copying practices—it’s about developing the expertise to ask the right questions, solve the right problems, and do the right thing in the situation at hand.

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