Lean development tips: principles, best practices and common pitfalls

The lean "philosophy" has expanded to the point that it’s applicable across many industries. But there are a few things all the applications of lean have in common: the benefits they bring to an organization.

Lean development can reduce development time and cost while also improving customer value and engagement, which in turn increases revenue. But what exactly qualifies as lean product management? And what makes a successful lean product manager?

In this guide, we go over a few best practices and clarify a few misconceptions about lean development.

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Lean thinking, lean development, lean startup and lean product management

Are they all the same? In short: no. But they derived from one another to some extent.

Lean thinking is a philosophy that was born in the manufacturing world in the 50s as a response to the traditional, linear production process known as waterfall. Lean thinking changed the production and manufacturing world, then slowly spread to other areas like management practices and software development. Lean thinking is where lean development, lean management, lean UX and lean startup originated from.

At the highest level, the goal of adopting lean thinking is to quickly deliver value to customers in shorter cycle times without sacrificing quality or the well-being of a team. It’s about optimizing the way value flows through a delivery cycle in a sustainable way that doesn’t delay delivery or jeopardize team morale.

Lean thinking as a philosophy is made up of a set of general principles and values. These values can then be applied using tried-and-true tools and techniques depending on what an organization (or individual manager) is trying to achieve.

These principles are the pillars of lean practices like lean startup, lean UX and lean software development:

  1. Specify value from the user’s point of view. Value is defined as what the customer is willing to pay for. Development teams find this value using qualitative and quantitative research.
  2. Map the value stream. Once that “value” has been defined and turned into a tangible goal for the team to chase, the next step is to map all the current steps that go into conceptualizing and delivering a feature or update. By using a flowchart, teams can analyze and improve their delivery process by spotting bottlenecks, pain points and delays.
  3. Create flow. The process of spotting and smoothing out those bottlenecks and pain points is called flow improvement. By visualizing and optimizing the internal process of delivery, teams can deliver features much more quickly.
  4. Establish pull. Once the flow is established, the team will only work on initiatives once customer need for it is established—instead of relying too much on market and competition forecasts.
  5. Seek perfection: At this stage, value has been defined, value streams have been mapped out, steps that are considered wasteful have been removed, and flow and pull systems are in place. To seek perfection means to repeat this process multiple times until the best possible value is defined without any waste.

If you’re a team leader in a development department trying to adopt lean software development, the values are more specific to this type of work but still deeply rooted in those founding lean thinking philosophies. While lean thinking is more concerned with the technical work of the development team, lean development includes practices that are focused on people (software teams and users).

There are 7 established lean principles for building more efficient software products and each of these principles comes with a set of tactics, practices and processes that development teams can apply right away:

  1. Eliminate waste. Anything that doesn’t add value to the customer is considered waste.
  2. Amplify learning and create knowledge. Learning happens by implementing short iteration cycles and continuously gathering feedback to adjust the deliverables as the needs of the users become clearer.
  3. Defer critical decisions. Waiting until the last responsible moment to make a decision. The last responsible moment is defined as the moment you’ve learned enough about a decision to act on it.
  4. Build quality in. Creating quality at the coding level so that instead of tracking and looking for defects, they can be prevented from the start.
  5. Respect people. Respect in this context is defined as giving team members a voice and valuing their opinions. Respect extends to communication, conflict resolution, and encouraging healthy and productive discussions about business decisions.
  6. Deliver fast. It starts by identifying the things that are slowing down the team and eliminating them. Delivering fast doesn’t mean overworking until burnout to hit deadlines. it’s about creating the most functional versions of solutions and then improving it over time using customer feedback.
  7. Optimize the whole. Finding the components of the process that are dependent on one another and optimizing all of them, instead of just one part of it.

And finally, lean startup. This is an approach coined by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup, published in 2011. It’s mostly for new product development teams and startups who haven’t yet formulated a finished product. The idea is to validate the initial assumptions made by startups at this early stage of the lifecycle in order to make sure that what they’re building is solving real user problems. Under this approach, learning, rather than delivering constantly, is more important to the long-term success of product teams.

If you’re a product manager, lean product management is comprised of product leadership practices that are deeply rooted in all the principles and philosophies outlined earlier. They’re more tactical and actionable, with the intention of leading teams towards shortest delivery times and delivering the highest value possible for customers. The idea is to do all of this without sacrificing resources or the well-being of the people who make up the development teams that product managers are leading.

So, what does a lean product manager look like? What can you do to implement more lean management principles? What are the misconceptions and pitfalls to watch out for? We go over a few best practices in lean product management.

1. Find and eliminate waste

Value in lean is defined as anything the users of your product are willing to pay for. Value is defined this way in order to stop teams from working on initiatives that are based on user needs. Once you define this value specific to your product, you can map the way the team works in order to eliminate activities that don’t contribute to the delivery of that value.

In software, these wasteful activities can be classified into different categories like building too many features, backlog mismanagement, partially done work, delays/multitasking, repeat work, handoffs, solutions that could be simpler, task switching, defects, loss of knowledge and poor communication.

To eliminate waste, product teams can enact a two-part action plan:

  1. Find waste through value stream mapping. Start by identifying the activities that make up the product development process (design, development, operations and maintenance, and deployment). Map how the work is currently being done within each sector and look for the wasteful activities, the bottlenecks and the delays.
  2. Remove or reduce the waste. Eliminate the waste identified during the value stream mapping using an iterative approach. This can be done by holding regular retrospectives and encouraging the team to be on the lookout for things that don’t add value to their process.

2. Involve users constantly to define value

Working on things that directly create value for users is at the heart of lean development. To start defining value from the user space, lean product teams begin by actively establishing tactics to better understand their users.

There are many tactics and techniques for establishing a development and delivery system where user value is at the heart of every decision. Ideally, the blueprint for becoming a product team that makes decisions based on their deep understanding of user needs goes like this:

  1. Use journey mapping to visualize the current wants and needs of the users. Like value stream mapping, journey mapping sets out to capture the frustrations and challenges but at the user level. Using active and passive methods to observe how a user performs a task, this stage involves drawing a map of the task from beginning to end, complete with roadblocks.
  2. Establish a proactive Voice of the Customer (VOC) system. This involves establishing a process for determining customers’ expectations, preferences and dislikes. Use a combination of user performance monitoring and active quantitative research like interviews, surveys, and focus groups.
  3. Transform VOC data into performance goals and design/development requirements. Also called quality function deployment (QFD), at this stage, teams map the customer requirements and the internal resources they’ll need to turn them into deliverables.
  4. Develop a healthy testing and learning mindset within the team. Using research and testing tools like assumption testing and rapid prototyping, teams can quickly turn learnings into improvements over time.

3. Encourage empowerment and autonomy

Lean practices and frameworks are bound to fail without the proper culture in place. Often, lean transformations don’t stick because of cultural factors like methodology skeptics, poor long term planning, reluctance to remove wasteful processes and practices, unrealistic expectations and loosely implemented practices that don’t have the right metrics in place.

But one of the most positive lean changes a product manager can encourage is giving teams the freedom to make decisions based on their expertise. Autonomy is motivating and it can be created by doing something as simple as decentralizing the product team and making departmental knowledge and tools widely available.

Empowering product teams requires that the product manager works on a few things. Namely, actively and empathetically listening to the concerns of the development team, helping them identify the things that are holding them back, and giving them direct access to the data used for making decisions (including communication channels with users).

Lean product management pitfalls to watch out for

The decision to adopt lean comes with a lot of bureaucratic and cultural barriers. Overall, most organizations that fail at adopting an efficient and successful lean model tend to face the same problems. For starters, in order to become lean, leaders should communicate that it comes with difficulties at every level, both cultural and operational.

Being aware of these common shortcomings and faulty implementations can help teams prepare to tackle the challenges that come with making the shift to lean development practices.

Some of the biggest shortcomings in implementing a lean approach to management or development happen right at the start of the process—before the teams do any of the work. When there’s a faulty lean foundation, the rest of your lean structure is bound to fall apart.

Lack of an implementation strategy. Implementing lean development at an organization isn’t as easy as explaining the benefits to the team and sending them a list of to-do’s. Before starting out, the leadership team should establish an actionable vision and goals that the entire organization understands.

A lean development strategy should include:

  • A realistic pulse check of the culture of the organization, and whether it can handle a lean transformation
  • Clear assignment of responsibilities
  • Resource allocation
  • A clear implementation plan from beginning to end
  • Foreseeing issues and pitfalls that might arise and preparing an action plan in case they happen
  • The right KPIs and metrics to measure the success of the implementation.

The last point is important for organizations and teams to feel like their lean transformation efforts are measurable. Unfortunately, product teams that make the lean leap often do so because they don’t define the right metrics to measure the transformation process.

Poor lean metrics/KPIs. On top of the usual product development metrics, the leadership in charge of making the lean transition should have metrics specific to track the results of the lean transformation. This means having metrics and KPIs that evaluate how effective and efficient lean has been in the organization, both culturally and operationally.

Some of the vital lean metrics PMs should follow:

  • Work in progress (WIP). To visualize the flow of the work, use a kanban board. In the board, work in progress is the bulk of initiatives the team is working on at any given time but hasn’t completed. The idea is to observe what work is causing delays and not providing value, and remove it over time.
  • Lead time. This metric measures how long it takes for any given task to be completed through the entire development workflow.
  • Cycle time. Using cycle time, teams can measure how long work takes to go through each of the individual steps in the workflow.
  • Iteration velocity. This measures how quickly the team is running experiments.
  • User satisfaction metrics. These are metrics product managers are typically already measuring like NPS, Customer Effort Score and Customer Loyalty Index.
  • Knowledge/experiment ratio. This should tell you what percentage of your iteration experiments are resulting in new and valuable knowledge that contributes to the improvement of the overall process.

These are just some of the metrics that lean product managers should be keeping track of. The metrics that you measure should directly align with your organization's individual goals, the product strategy and the goals of the business.

But overall, product leaders should carefully measure the implementation of lean and make changes according to the results.

Key takeaways

In product management, lean is about applying a scientific experimentation approach to find the right solutions to the right problems faced by users. The main goal of being lean for product managers isn’t to over-work and under-fund teams with tight deadlines and too many unrealistic deliverables; it’s about creating a product culture of designing and running experiments to test solutions, then learning from the results.

At they're core, lean practices and methods are about creating products that tap into real user needs. Lean helps product managers—and the teams they work with—maintain a consistent and valuable stream of communication with users, which in turn creates sustainable products with a long lifespan.

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