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Can Lean Product Management Help Startups Build Strong Products?

Updated: Sep 15, 2023



Nowadays, digital products are becoming more and more prominent in our lives, and it’s already part of our daily activities. The majority of such apps have undergone iterative and incremental development to enhance and improve their features.

Most of our readers would have heard of Agile product management (‘Agile’). It is a methodology that is followed by a majority of software development companies today. But it is not the only game in town. In fact, the biggest advantage that you can leverage from a startup perspective is Lean product management (‘Lean’ or ‘LPM’).

In this article, we will look at what Lean is, how it can help you and how it can help your startup build great products that your customers love. As any startup will tell you, managing an idea from concept to launch is a lot easier said than done. A lot of things can go wrong and this often leads to a lot of frustration among startups.

This is why it is important to follow a set of principles that can help you manage your product’s lifecycle better. In this article, you will find out about Lean product management, its pillars, how it can be implemented and how it differs from Agile, and why it can be considered a better method of managing product development.


What is Lean?

Lean product management is an iterative, incremental development method that allows teams and businesses to build better products faster. It’s an actionable framework to achieve this product-market fit.

Lean is a term that is often used but not always fully understood. It is a process that is used in startups and can be used in any organization but is especially useful when there is a limited budget or time to get products to market.

It is a process that is focused on building the right thing. It is built on the principles of a business that focuses on delivering value to the customer. And it is a process that can take a startup from the idea stage all the way to the retail shelf.


Why does Lean matter?

In the startup context. When you are building a product, there are two main things you should focus on: what you are building, and how you are building it. It is easy to fall into the trap of building the product before you have a clear idea of what you want to build. In that situation, you are likely to end up building something nobody wants.

On the other hand, it is also easy to focus on how to build it, without giving enough thought to what you want to build. The Lean Startup methodology tries to address both of these issues. Lean has a lot in common with Agile, but there are also key differences.


Lean relies on good product strategy

A product development strategy is a set of processes, methods, and rules used to create new products in a timely fashion. A good strategy increases the chances of a startup’s success. It is a path to improving a startup’s chances of success. It is a combination of processes and tools that helps startups create products and features that customers want. A good strategy is based on the market needs and not on personal biases.

Lean minimizes this risk by allowing customer feedback and data to drive product strategy. Lean product managers prioritize:

  • Customer problems over internal requirements

  • Data-driven experiments over assumptions

  • Customer problem roadmaps over feature roadmaps

  • Idea generation and collaboration over solution mandates

Four key focus areas

Instead of building a product for a customer and hoping that the offering is better than the competitor, Lean is focused on what the customer wants and does not want. There is more market research done and the product is built based on the research and needs. Each Lean product manager is responsible for four areas:

  • A few features

  • One problem

  • One solution, and

  • One outcome

Lean is an approach often used by startups, in which a small team and a series of feedback loops create a minimum viable product (MVP) which is then tested with potential customers, and then reworked based on this feedback. With these focus areas in mind, Lean is an effective way to ensure the product is built based on what the company knows about the customer's needs.


Five essential steps

This approach is derived from Agile software development and is intended to avoid the error of launching a product that nobody wants. The steps involved in Lean can be summarized as:

1. Empathize and understand what customers want.

2. Create the MVP.

3. Launch the MVP to real customers.

4. Use customer feedback to improve the product.

5. Pivoting in case the MVP fails to deliver value.


Four Lean pillars

The Four Pillars of Lean are Value, Uncertainty, Validated Learning, and Continuous Experimentation.

  • Value means that product management focuses not just on features but on value to the end customer.

  • Uncertainty means that a product manager needs to accept that they do not know what the customer wants.

  • Validated Learning means that the product manager learns from the customers. This can be done in multiple ways, one of the best is to do.

  • Continuous Experimentation means that a product manager needs to keep experimenting with ideas to find the right solution.

Businesses are under a lot of pressure these days to deliver fast and to take risks. In this case, having a lean strategy can help you to deliver a successful product. We usually think that startups are about finding the right idea and quickly building an MVP, then getting it in front of users. The idea is to see whether or not it sticks. Because of this, most startups start with a rough MVP, a feeling of urgency to get the product out, and a lack of resources. As a result, many startups neglect the product management team.

Many startups don’t have the time, resources, or money to hire a product manager, so they make do with the “jack of all trades” developers. This method works for a while, and then, the product begins to fall apart. As the team is making tweaks, the product becomes more and more complicated. In the end, it’s a mess that no one can fix, and the product fails.


The Lean Startup Model at Google: A case study

Google is one of the biggest companies in the world, with over 1.4 billion users accessing their search engine every month. The story of the development of Google is a classic example of Lean and how it can help you build a great product.

Google started as a research project. It was originally called BackRub. The BackRub project started as a way to rank web pages and determine their authority. The idea was to create an algorithm that would do things a human would do when evaluating a web page and it would be able to check the number of inbound links and the relevance of those links.

The algorithm would also look at the keywords on the web page, not just the text on the page. You can check through how Google plotted a Lean Model for their search engine which now contributes more than 80% of its revenue.


Lean Model For Google’s Search Engine


In the early years of building Google, one major problem they were facing was that the traditional process of building new products that required a lot of time and resources wasn’t working. They were losing out to Yahoo and other Internet companies. So they resorted to Lean and soon they were able to come up with products like Google Earth and Google News. This gave them the cushion to test the feature with potential customers, rework based on their feedback and iteratively improve the product.


Getting started with Lean

When starting a new venture, understanding how to make the best use of your time and resources is critical to the success of your product. Lean helps you to build the right product faster, with less waste, and more efficiently. It’s primarily used in startups and is a great way to establish a process for validating your idea early on, using sketches, wireframes, and prototypes.

I was talking to a startup founder the other day and he was telling me how he had just hired his first product manager. He told me that he had just spent a week trying to explain to her what he wanted her to do and how he wanted her to get started. I could tell he was frustrated and a little worried as to how she would perform — because he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted.

I asked him if he was following a lean startup methodology and he said that he had been following lean product development practices. He added that he had spent a lot of time building the MVP and making sure that the product was ready for launch. But this is where I told him that he was focusing on the wrong thing — because he wasn’t thinking about the product in a customer centric way. Lean thinking is all about focusing on the customer.


Focus on the customer

The first thing you should focus on as a lean product manager is the customer. You should study how they live and how they think. Observe the customer, spend time with them, and learn about their lives, their spending pattern, and so on. Lean thinking is about creating products people want and will pay for.


Identify and remove waste

The next thing you should focus on as a lean product manager is identifying and removing waste. The most substantial waste is wasted time and effort.


Overcome fear of failure

The third thing you should focus on as a lean product manager is building expertise and overcoming the fear of failure. Eliminating waste means taking action and making decisions. Actions are what separate successful companies from unsuccessful ones.


The Toyota Production System (TPS)

In Agile, the goal is to create a product that is easy to maintain. Lean is the newer practice, which can be traced back to a meeting of the Toyota Production System (TPS) with the goal of improving how products are created. As part of the Lean methodology, processes like Kaizen and Six Sigma are used to identify waste in the development process and eliminate it. With Lean, there is less focus on the product life cycle and more of a focus on the customer lifecycle. With Lean, the goal is to create a product that meets the customer’s needs and is easy to use.


Lean and Agile

Agile and Lean are similar in that they both refer to the practice of developing products fast, with the use of short development cycles and frequent releases. There are actually some subtle differences between the two practices that may have an effect on the product. Scrum is based on the Agile methodology which is a framework developed to manage software development. This is sometimes called the Agile scrum methodology — which is a process that relies on incremental development.

Lean follows the principle of “under-promise and over-deliver” whereas agile product management follows the principle of “simple design and frequent delivery”. Lean is more focused on the growth aspects of the product lifecycle as opposed to Agile, which is more focused on product delivery and management. Agile methods are more technical than Lean. Lean methods are more creative and focused on marketing than Agile.

Small products and one-off projects can sometimes be better served by Lean. Agile works perfectly well when you are working on a product that will have a long life and needs a lot of iteration. However, if you are working on a new product, especially in a startup and you need to get it out as soon as possible, you might want to consider implementing Lean methods instead.


Keep learning, building, relearning, and building.

As a startup and having limited resources, it is important to know the right way of product development. But, don’t worry, I’m here to help you out. The right way of product development begins with a strong foundation in product management and Lean is a strategy that can help you succeed.

It’s not always easy to make a product that people want to use. It’s even harder to make a product that people love. But it’s always worth it. So keep learning, building, relearning, and building. If you have questions about Lean methodologies, please contact me on Linkedin. I’m always excited to hear from you and help you build a better product!



Special thanks to Tremis Skeete, Executive Editor at Product Coalition, for the valuable input that contributed to this article's editing.


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