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How to use Lean startup approaches in your organisation

You may have heard people talking about using ‘Lean startup’ approaches or being ‘Lean’. What is being ‘Lean’, and is ‘Lean startup’ only for startups?

Being ‘Lean’ means an organisation focuses only on the things that deliver the greatest value to their customers or service users and tries to eliminate other ‘waste’.

The idea began in the Japanese manufacturing industry as a way of minimising waste in factory production processes, and was called ‘Lean manufacturing’. But since then, startup technology businesses adapted the principles to find new ways to build digital products and services and called this ‘Lean startup’.

Tips for 'Lean' working

Here are tips for applying Lean startup approaches to develop digital products and services in your organisation:


Familarise yourself with the ideas behind 'Lean' startup

Given the immense popularity of Lean startup in the digital industry, there are lots of good resources out there, including video introductions and web content.


Use the 'Build, Measure, Learn' cycle

If you’re interested in applying Lean startup approaches to services you’re building, it’s important to use the ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ cycle’, which is at the heart of the process. So instead of planning up front what you think users will want, a Lean approach involves going through lots of rapid building and testing cycles to constantly check with service users if a product or service is actually achieving its intended outcomes. 

Here’s an overview of the ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ cycle in more detail:

  • Build

You start with an idea about what you think would be useful for service users based on user research and data. You then build the smallest, cheapest version that you can test with your service users. You might start with paper prototypes or ‘Wizard of Oz’ approaches, which are both quick and cheap ways to test your ideas. As you learn from these tests and go around the ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ cycle you’ll get a clearer idea about what users need. This means that what you build will become more and more robust each time around. You’ll likely progress from prototypes to building an ‘MVP’ (minimum viable product).

  • Measure

Each time you build a version of your idea, you need to test it with service users to see if it delivers value. Firstly, this means being clear on what you’re trying to achieve with the product. This sounds simple, but requires a lot of discipline to really focus on identifying a measurable thing the product can do for users. Secondly, it means putting the product in front of real service users and getting their honest feedback through user testing.

  • Learn

Crucially you learn from the building and measuring. Let’s say people didn’t respond well to the product or it didn’t achieve what you wanted. You have to take this learning back into the product and build the next version. The idea is to make this ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ cycle as rapid as possible, without compromising the quality of each of the steps. That might mean you make changes to the product on a weekly, or even daily basis. 


Be aware of barriers

Be aware that often the biggest barriers to Learn startup methodologies, particularly in large organisations, are that product teams don’t have the resource or authority to make rapid changes, or they’re being held up by organisational processes. That’s why Lean startup methodologies work well with Agile approaches to software development; they share the idea that the team should be empowered to deliver the work. Both promote the idea that while the outcomes of the work should stay the same, the actual outputs will shift over time as the team find the right product or service to meet the service users’ needs.


Try to get senior management and trustee buy-in

Remember that it’s hard to apply new approaches on your own! Try to get senior management and trustee buy-in by showing examples of where this approach has been useful in the charity sector.  Connect with other external sources of support. You could go to one of the many meetup groups, sign up to newsletters, or find people working in other nonprofits or technology organisations that are trying Lean approaches.


Keep testing with service users

Lastly, remember that Lean approaches are an effective way to achieve outcomes for service users. They are tools and methodologies to be picked up and used to support the charity’s work. As such, they need to be supported strategically, but governed appropriately. A team needs agency to make product decisions, but senior managers will want to understand the process and progress a team is making to be sure they’ re on track. Equally an MVP is a great way to test out early ideas, but isn’t a substitute for a live service. It needs to be tested appropriately with service users.

 As with all new approaches you can’t expect to get it right the first time. It will take time to experiment and learn how to use Lean approaches, but they have been proven to be extremely effective and efficient for commercial companies, government and nonprofits across the globe.  

Further information

This how-to was written by CAST - Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology

We’d love to hear your suggestions of useful Lean startup links, guides and tips from your own experience!  


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Page last edited May 16, 2018 History

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