I learned about Lean engineering at Xerox. It was pretty funny as there was basically nowhere within engineering that you could actually apply the lessons and hence it seemed like pointless instruction followed by pointless required tasks to get a pointless certification.

But now I see exactly where and why Lean can work so well, especially for physical products.

If you’re designing a product and your competition is existing solutions to the problem you are attempting to solve, then Lean isn’t that helpful. In order to be considered by your customers as a viable option you need to do all the things your competition does and then either be less expensive or do even more. This is quite difficult in most every industry.

But if you’re designing a product where there is no competition and the prospective customers don’t even really realize there is a problem that could be solved, then some options open up. You don’t have to better than established competitors as there aren’t any, you just have to be better than the inefficient processes or products that you’re looking to displace.

For instance, if you’re Xerox/Haloid and you’re coming out with the first plain paper copy machine, you don’t have to be amazing and fast and inexpensive, there literally is nothing like your product in the market. You’re placing a machine against humans retyping, the machine is going to win hands down even if it starts on fire every once in a while and only can print a few pages per minute. You can literally make the smallest, simplest device that beats the existing lack of competition and you’ve basically made a license to print money.

These days, at Xerox, it’s very hard to apply Lean within engineering. The competition is well established both internally and externally, and if your new printer can’t do everything every printer has ever done before it within a product category, no one is going to buy your printer. Implementing all these now required features takes a lot of time and effort just to get to a product that has nothing special inside. In the 1950s this wasn’t true but since about 1995 it has been. The lesson here is if you want to apply Lean, doing so within this kind of industry is very hard, so find somewhere else to apply it! Find that 1950s Xerox situation where no one had ever heard of a plain paper duplicator and show those same people who’ve never heard of your product concept why there’s huge value in it for them.

Now, when you’ve found that group of people who’ve never realized there’s this new technology that could make their lives much easier or better, you can take advantage of it. You don’t need to have 1000 features, you just need to have 1 feature that’s better than not having your product. So don’t spend time making the other 999!

Likely your customer doesn’t know which of the 999 other features they want or would even be interested in using. So just because a marketing person says, “Look! There’s 1000 features here, you must build all of them!” doesn’t mean you have to build more than 1! The Xerox 914 copier sucked as viewed from every copy machine built after it, but it was infinitely better than everything that came before it.

Just make sure that once you’ve introduced that product with 1 feature that you engage your customers to ensure the next 9 features of the 999 possible keep those customers coming back to you for more. Then build on it, you’ll have inertia and all your competition will be playing catch-up, at least at the beginning.

This is how I see the MVP (minimum viable product) working for physical products (ie: NOT JUST WEBSITES or software). Your MVP is a physical product that sets a direction for your product line, initially being one hit feature but of which there are further follow-on products covering more and more features over time. You don’t have to upgrade the existing product in the field to be Lean and have an MVP, but you do have to iterate and not be afraid to put out that first product that just has 1 killer feature and nothing else.

Make it small, make it simple, make that first.


13 January 2014