Myth #6

Lean cannot be used in innovative environments


February 2019


Ana Luisa Carvalho e Silva

Innovation is essential for businesses to survive and grow in any competitive environment. However, companies struggle to create systematic and efficient processes for creative thinking and innovative products. Where Lean would otherwise usually be used for process optimization and waste reduction, the persistent myth is that Lean cannot provide the same results in creative environments. So, the question is: Is Lean a philosophy that can be applied in innovative environments relying on creative processes, or will Lean constrain the nuances of creative work which are essential to its existence?

From creative to efficient – Is Lean a philosophy that can be used in innovative environments?

Innovation is the ability to create processes, methods, and products that keep organizations alive and relevant in a changing business environment. Innovative environments in particular are more sensitive to the increasing demand for efficiency and high-quality throughput, since they are characterized by a lack of predictability in input, output, and the aspects revolving around the processes itself. Methods of how to develop and launch innovations quickly and effectively are crucial, and in this respect, the Lean philosophy has proven successful in enabling this.

Rooted in manufacturing, Lean has revolutionized the way supply chains operate and production flows. The core ideas are rooted in standardizing processes, eliminating waste, visual management, systematic problem-solving, and continuous improvement. Typical consequences of these actions are better flow, fewer errors, more constant throughput, and a more standardized process and product quality.

Initially, there was a reluctance to apply Lean principles in service organizations, since Lean has carried the stigma that it can only work in structured and high-volume production. However, in the past three decades, Lean has increasingly been successfully adapted to information flows in “Lean administration”. In the 2000s, innovation and knowledge-based development processes faced the same issue, but Lean has again proved a successful tool to enable knowledge growth in innovation efforts in R&D departments, startups, and creative work in general.

What happens when Lean is used in creative environments?

Innovation environments create value by solving current and potential problems. Creativity is therefore a vital, active part throughout this process. A common perception is that creative processes cannot be boxed or labeled, and creativity and creative work cannot be planned or standardized. In principle, this implies that Lean is not a suitable fit for innovative environments. Nonetheless, several examples of successful application of Lean in innovative environments show that Lean is a relevant philosophy for this type of work as well.

Probably one of the best-known cases of Lean being used in creative environments is the one of Pixar Animation Studios – one of the world’s largest film production companies. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, states in his book “Creativity, Inc.” that Lean was an unexpected solution to make problems visible in his company, empower people to fix them, and uncouple fear and failure, because failure is “an investment in the future”. “… I soon discovered that the Japanese had found a way of making production a creative endeavor that engaged its workers – a completely radical and counterintuitive idea at the time. Indeed, the Japanese would have much to teach me about building a creative environment”. Based on these principles, Pixar developed an environment and culture that enabled creativity to blossom.

Their main principles can be summarized here:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
  • If you do not strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.
  • It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
  • The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

By implementing these principles of identifying errors early on and enabling teams and people to feel safe trying, making mistakes, and taking responsibility, Ed Catmull managed to apply fundamental Lean principles to a highly innovative environment, and this helped make Pixar successful in a highly competitive industry.

This culture was an essential ingredient in the production of several successful movies such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo among 17 others.

Moreover, well-established companies such as ECCO, LINAK, Rambøll, and Coloplast have succeeded in using Lean principles to achieve success through innovation by adapting the Lean tools that fit their specific challenges and by creating, for example, multi-functional teams, relevant performance management systems, and constantly improving the underlying processes to achieve these preset goals.

In their book “Lean Innovation”, Sonnenberg and Sehested (2010) mention how basic Lean principles can make any creative, development, or knowledge process successful:

  • Visual management – being able to understand who is doing what and when, establishing commitment through reinforcing the objectives and deadlines of the project. Delegating tasks is much easier once you have a visual representation of the team’s efforts. As they put it: “It is a myth that one very creative individual alone can create an innovative business success”.
  • Continuous improvement – the learning cycle of PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act, or one of its many variations, e.g. build-measure-learn (Ries, 2011), which includes a rapid loop from idea to feedback and revision, is essential in innovation environments. Through this process, we learn if we are on the right path, or if a drastic change of route is required. Small but frequent improvements that are implemented, tested against the client’s expectations, and adjusted thereby create a steep learning curve.
  • Invert the pyramid – solutions should be suggested by the ones sitting closest to the issues. They are not only exposed to the large number of issues but are also more familiar with the root causes of the issues and potential consequences of the solutions proposed.

Lean has not only been an approach to enabling innovation in well-established organizations; it has also been successfully applied in startups. Eric Ries mentions in his successful book “The Lean Startup” how creative and innovative processes in startups can benefit from Lean manufacturing mentality in terms of eliminating waste, prioritizing what is important for the client, and focusing on progress.

Progress in manufacturing is measured by the quality and quantity of output produced. According to Ries, the unit of progress measurement for creative processes such as R&D, script writing, startups, etc. should be “validated learning”. It is difficult to maintain a consistent way of measuring progress in such volatile environments, but it is not impossible. He suggests that having several iterations of implementing new ideas and getting quick customer feedback is the best way to ensure that the right things are done the right way.

The point is that creative work is usually surrounded by activities that are not directly adding value to the end product. Using the simple tools mentioned above will help reduce the time spent on supporting activities such as paperwork, meetings, searching for information, and communication. This will free up time for creative minds to do what really motivates them and creates value for their clients – creation of ideas, products, companies, solutions, etc. Furthermore, these tools support fundamental needs in any business and bring a simplistic and pragmatic approach that can be transferred to almost any kind of process, including knowledge growth. Through its continuous improvement philosophy, Lean fosters a dynamic attitude towards the way things are done and embraces failure as an essential part of learning. All of this must be supported by Lean leadership to allow employees to be guided in the right direction and create the right environment where ideas can flow freely and have a rapid iteration cycle that will determine whether it was a viable idea or not.

So, is the myth busted?

All in all, Lean in creative processes does not necessarily mean producing methods and products in a constant tact and producing standardized and similar output. It means that some elements of the Lean philosophy such as collaborative work, visual management, increased autonomy, continuous improvement, and problem-solving can be adapted to support and enable efficient production of innovative solutions, always with a focus on end customers and fast learning. So, although many people might argue that Lean would kill creativity by structuring creativity, it has been successfully implemented to enable innovation in creative companies, in well-established R&D departments, and in startups.

As Eric Ries concludes in his book; if all organizations used Lean methodology in their processes, “we would not waste time on endless arguments between the defenders of quality and the cowboys of reckless advance; instead, we would recognize that speed and quality are allies in the pursuit of the customer’s long-term benefit. We would race to test our vision but not to abandon it. We would look to eliminate waste not to build quality castles in the sky but in the service of agility and breakthrough business results. (…) Most of all, we would stop wasting people’s time”.

Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

Sehested, C. & Sonnenberg, H. (2010). Lean Innovation: A Fast Path from Knowledge to Value

Sehested, C. & Sonnenberg, H. Will Lean kill creativity in innovation?

Catmull, E. & Wallace, A. (2009). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.