The Lean Entrepreneur

There is no question at this point that 2009 is the worst economy we’ve all seen since the great depression. Good people are getting laid off left and right because their employer just doesn’t have work for them. And of course it’s very hard to get hired from outside a company that is the middle of layoffs. This clearly won’t last forever, but I believe it will last for some time. What is a lean-minded person to do when faced with this reality?

Start your own business. There are three things that I believe make true lean thinkers potentially great entrepreneurs.

1. Customer obsession: A lean thinking is obsessed with providing value to customers. Most businesses are started up with this basic mindset. How can you provide value to customers? What are customers missing? Think about what consumers or businesses or even government and other entities are missing. Think about how you could solve a problem that they have. Too many wanna-be entrepreneurs start with a solution and then go looking for a customer, only to find out they are providing something that adds value. A lean thinker wouldn’t make that mistake. Start with how you could add value to a group of potential customers, and develop a solution around that. The solution could be a service or product. It doesn’t even have to be new. It could simply be a gap in the market, such as the local lawn-moving service seems to do a really poor job and doesn’t solve the customers full set of problems as well as you might.

2. Direct observation: Whether you call it direct observation, or going to the gemba, a lean thinker knows how to go to the point of activity and gather the ground truth current reality about any problem. This is critical in starting a business. You need a firm grasp on current reality. You need to understand the problem first hand, because you will be solving it first hand.

3. Respect for people: Very few businesses start up only on the backs of the sole founder. It takes a team. It takes the energy, commitment, and alignment of the early employees, regardless of what skill level they begin from. Getting the initial team excited, on board with your vision, and moving forward together is a major accomplishment, and what better than a lean thinking to accomplish it.

This nation’s economic success has always depended on entrepreneurs. It is the major source of job growth. And of course if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of not having a job, maybe this is a time to take those lean skills in a new direction.


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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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6 Comments on "The Lean Entrepreneur"

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  1. zx12bob says:

    Hi Jamie,

    Nice post. But can't help thinking it's the product of a rationalising mind ;)

    Sadly, I believe that start-up success is more often down to dumb luck in finding a product with market appeal, rather than customer obsession; blindness to reality than a firm grasp of same; and sheer bloodymindedness rather than respect for people.

    Still, I'm with you in wishing it could be otherwise.

    Cheers
    @flowchainsensei

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    Interesting. As an entrepreneur myself several times over, coach of other entrepreneurs, and student of the process, I have to say the evidence that I have would suggest that's just not true.

    Even if it were, then why bother working on it at all. Everyone should start multiple things at once.

    Was Amazon lucky or were they customer obsessed and developed great solutions to solve real problems? Zappos could ask the same question. Was Netflix lucky? There was entrenched product – Blockbuster. But they studied, experimented, and their final product was the output of a process.

    Here's a fact – almost no startups are overnight successes but have success after many grueling months and years, making changes to everything from strategy to product to team. That sounds like a process to me.

  3. Jim Baran, Owner Value Stream Leadership says:

    Bob, how would you ever find a product with market appeal if you weren’t obsessed with customer need? I agree with Jamie, it’s a process, not a poker hand.

    Entrepreneurship is an undeveloped skill. Successful entrepreneurs have developed and evolved this skill into a mindset. The migration from tinkerer to craftsman is very similar.

    Learning entrepreneurship isn’t about making money. It’s a process of connecting random to relative to reality.

    I commented to Jamie’s Twit on this post as “timely”. Financially, it’s harder now than ever to start-up a business.

    Bob, I agree, to start-up a business today without entrepreneurial skills would certainly classify as “dumb luck” if your primary expectation is financial independence.

    I believe it’s timely for many to begin exploring entrepreneurship as a skill. If you’re employed – happy or sad, what better skill can you have to widen and deepen your job satisfaction? If you’re unemployed what better skill can you develop to find your next career connection? Like lean, entrepreneurship developed and practiced well makes YOU repeatable. If you’re repeatable, you come closer to not being replaceable.

    Like lean, there is much to learn about entrepreneurship. It can be applied to any circumstance or event. Expectation is usually where we fall down. Great entrepreneurs have a well defined sense of the customer reality and respect for people, places, and things. The magic is that we make it look easy. In reality, it never is.

    So, who invented the Dream Catcher? The Legend of the Dream Catcher http://ow.ly/ADJS.

    Jim Baran
    Value Stream Leadership
    New website: http://www.valuestreamleaders.com
    Twitter: LEANVSL

  4. zx12bob says:

    Jamie, Jim,
    I think our differing views may arise in some part from a different use of the word "startup". In my comment, I had in mind the kind of start-up I have seen most often over here in the UK. I might describe these as more Mom-an-Pop, non-VC, small-business, proto-businesses as exemplified by "Dragons Den" and launched by what Michael Gerber refers-to as the "technician". As a 5+ years Princes Trust business mentor I have seen any number of these.

    From your comments I think maybe you had more in mind the high-powered, VC-backed, hope-to-be-huge business, proto-Googles launched by teams of "seasoned pros". We don't see many of those over here in this "nation of small shop-keepers" :} Oh, and those that we do see have more in common with the other kind of UK startup I describe above.

    So I hold that my earlier comments apply to the kind of start-ups I had in mind, but entirely accept they may not apply to the kind of start-ups of which you may have been thinking.

    Best,
    Bob

  5. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    Well, if you're opening a corner store for selling milk and M&Ms, then I would agree with you. But that doesn't mean the alternative is VC-backed wannabe Googles. There are millions of business in between.

  6. Jason Webb says:

    I hope Entrepreneurship is about doing something you like to do that fills a need or satisfies a want that other people have and makes money.

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