Lean Product Development: What is it and is it Truly Useful?

6 min read
Frank L.
Frank L.
Published November 10, 2020 Updated March 22, 2021

What if we told you there was a way to do more with less? Sounds suspect, but for product teams, resource and time management are a vital part of the process. Lean product development is built on the idea that reducing waste is the key to building high-quality products faster.

closeup side view of 2 open macbook laptops on a desk with papers in between them and two hands pointing to the papers and writing on them

Lean product development is also a framework for thinking about how to maximize the value of every resource at your team’s disposal. The goal is to move quickly and iterate on your ideas without sacrificing quality or negatively impacting the product experience.

It’s about streamlining—cutting away the things that don’t work—and creating processes for your team that reduce complexity. When a significant portion of the customer experience is built on deriving continual value from a product, being able to release better products faster can be the thing that sets your company apart from the competition.

So, can lean product development do that for your team? How do you use the methodology to create efficiencies for your team? To answer these questions, we need to start with a clear understanding of what it means to be lean.

What Is Lean Product Development?

Lean product development got its start in the manufacturing world. As we alluded to in the introduction, the focus of this methodology is on moving faster while also optimizing each step of the product development process for your team. The goal of lean product development is to reduce the amount of time and resources it takes to build a new product or feature, lowering the cost to your business without sacrificing value.

There are five core tenets of lean product development:

  1. Understand what customers value and why.
  2. Streamline processes to cut down wasted effort.
  3. Optimize processes to create value in every step.
  4. Foster autonomy within and between teams.
  5. Continually improve your product over time.

Bring all this together and you have a framework for building out the product development process that creates a seamless experience for your team while also making products more valuable and engaging for customers.

This starts with a sincere and direct focus on understanding how to get the most value with the least amount or resources.

Lean Product Development Focuses on Delivering Value

Three of the core principles of lean product development talk about value—value for customers, value for your business, and value for your team. Understanding how to optimize the product development process to create continual value helps focus your efforts on the actions that provide the most return on investment (ROI).

Every point along the product-development life cycle can either add or subtract value from the end result of a project. The lean method helps your team refine exactly what type of product or feature customers will value, based on an understanding of wants versus needs.

It’s important to differentiate between wants and needs for this exercise because they relate to different things for the customer:

  • A customer wants a product that solves an immediate problem.
  • A customer needs a product that helps them accomplish their long-term goals.

Using the lean methodology, you can easily address both of these problems for customers. Lean product development focuses on increasing value at every step of the product-development life cycle, which is why that process is referred to as the value stream. Understanding this concept helps every member of your team stay connected with the specific outcomes your product or feature creates upon release.

Adopting a lean method also forces you to reevaluate progress toward these outcomes on an ongoing basis, with the goal of improving processes and communication at key points in the product-development life cycle. Often, this is referred to as the build-measure-learn loop.

diagram of the build-measure-learn loop in lean product development methodology
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Lean product teams kick off this cycle by creating a minimum viable/valuable product (MVP). This is the most basic product or feature that customers will engage with upon release. It’s a way to ship something to customers quickly without getting mired in long development times.

Building an MVP tightens the feedback loop between customers and your business and helps everyone see value on a continual basis. It helps you provide a solution that solves a short-term problem for customers while also working toward a long-term solution that benefits everyone.

Lean Product Development Helps You Plan More Effectively

Lean product development is built around the idea of reduction. More specifically, you home in on how to reduce the time and resources required to complete a given project successfully. But reduction isn’t the end goal—the lean method wants to reduce waste without sacrificing quality. This forces you to look at how your team executes on various tasks and identify areas for improvement.

Narrowing focus in this way helps you understand the amount of developer time and resources are available at any point. Whether you’re in the process of planning your next project or reassessing a backlog of tasks mid-development, this insight makes it easier to create a plan for your team. Each stage of the product-development life cycle requires a different kind of work to progress, so it’s important to have a high-level view of what’s available to maximize your ROI.

Continually reevaluating resource availability also helps you create a realistic picture of your team’s overall progress. You’re able to track how each employee manages their workflow and, more importantly, how often they successfully accomplish their goals. Taking a look at these processes from the lean viewpoint helps you identify bottlenecks earlier and save confusion or missed deadlines in the future.

hand pointing at whiteboard that reads "product roadmap" with a timeline of Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4 and high level goals for each quarter

Creating a dedicated roadmap for each release is a great way to visualize this information and share it with your team.

A lean roadmap focused on shortening development times helps you gain a better understanding of what resources are available for every member of your team as well. That means more clarity into product goals, individual contributions, and the overall success of your product.

In this way, the lean method acts as a compass, guiding your team through their respective tasks without getting in the way of helping them accomplish their goals.

Lean Product Development Builds Adaptable Processes for Your Team

Maximizing the time and resources you allocate to a project is only possible when you have a clear view of how previous projects performed as well. When you’re able to look at the product-development process in this way, it helps your team adapt to the changing requirements of every project. The lean method prioritizes adaptability and continual improvement as one of its five core principles.

This adaptability is what helps your team pivot tasks without losing momentum. Everyone involved at each stage of the process will be able to see the underlying reason for a change as well as how that change impacts your product or business goals. Team-wide clarity of these requirements makes it easier to foster adaptability as a part of your team culture.

Adaptability also increases autonomy. When each member of your team is comfortable changing their view of a given project, it makes working across various product teams within your organization easier. One way to think about this is to structure your team into squads, or cells, based on their individual objectives.

diagram of product team structure showing three teams each with one product owner and 4 developers

Each team will be able to create their own processes and identify areas where they can cut down on the time it takes to execute on individual tasks. Your infrastructure team, for example, will have vastly different workflows and workloads from your front-end design team. Understanding that helps both teams refine the way they work independently from one another and helps them earn how to work better together.

Focusing on adaptability, clarity, and continual improvement also increases engagement from every member of the team. It provides valuable context that helps every employee make smarter decisions for the ultimate success of the project. The lean product-development framework acts as a forcing function, helping your team take every project from idea through to release as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Being Lean Helps You Innovate Faster

Innovation is a key differentiator for your business. Practicing lean product development not only makes it easier for your team to create products that are engaging for customers, but it also forces them to think critically about how to build on that value over time. Some of the innovative products on the market started out as a simple solution to an existing problem on the market.

When you focus your team on providing continual value to customers, building something innovative is really just about finding the right problem to solve.

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