What’s Wrong with “What’s Wrong With the Lean Start-up”


A few years back, I coined a really bad acronym: L.A.M.E. One of the things it can mean is “Lean As Mistakenly Explained.” It's inevitable to see articles about the Lean Startup methodology that fit into this category (or maybe L.S.A.M.E.???).

The Inc. article “What's Wrong With the Lean Start-up” has a number of flaws and bad assumptions that would put the article into the L.S.A.M.E. category, as well as L.A.M.E. Ironically, the author of the piece,  Jon Burgstone, teaches entrepreneurship at Berkeley — is he hanging out with fellow Cal professor Steve Blank, a guru in this methodology? It seems not.

Burgstone starts with a L.A.M.E. manufacturing description:

The lean idea stems from the Toyota Production System (TPS), which was first developed after WWII, and which continues to be refined. The goal of the system is to reduce waste in the production process. Techniques such as kanban and eventually ISO-9000 emerged to improve efficiency and repeatability.

ISO-9000 emerged from Lean??? Oh dear Lord, it's already game over with this article. ISO has completely different roots and often gets in the way of Lean implementations, rather than being a part of Lean. Burgstone says he is a former ISO auditor… he seems to know more about ISO than Lean.

Burgstone continues with the L.A.M.E.:

TPS is designed to produce a system that can churn out millions of copies of a product with consistently high quality.

There's the old falsehood that Lean is just about mindless cranking out tons of identical widgets — that's not even true at Toyota. Burgstrom makes Lean sound like a robotic execution system instead of a people-driven improvement and problem solving system. Lean works in healthcare precisely because it's NOT about cranking out widgets.

Burgstone can, as he does in the article, take issue with the Lean Startup concepts of Minimum Viable Product and Innovation Accounting – there's room for healthy debate about those approaches. But, he shouldn't get it so wildly wrong about Lean.

He ends the piece with this claptrap:

However, entrepreneurship and innovation are not paint-by-numbers activities. Company founders need to think—and be smarter—about their new ventures. And that does mean entrepreneurs must be resourceful, adaptable, and learn from what doesn't work. But trying to follow a system designed to produce a million identical, high-quality Corollas, Camrys, and Siennas makes very little sense.

I've never heard anybody in the Lean Startup movement say that the method is cookbook entrepreneurship. Far from it. You need vision and you need to be adaptable and flexible.

When Burgstrom says “entrepreneurs must be resourceful, adaptable, and learn from what doesn't work”   — that's exactly what the Lean Startup approach preaches — resourcefulness, adaptability, and learning.

It's the pinnacle of L.S.A.M.E. to criticize Lean Startup for being the exact thing that it's not!!!

I wrote this post mainly because Inc's commenting functionality seems to not always load, but this comment from Andy Dobson captures it more succinctly than I did:

A MASSIVE misrepresentation of Lean and its principles!

I tried interacting with Burgstone on Twitter, but he only deflected away from my questions.   Thankfully, many others are calling him out in the Inc. comments…

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Ah, the joys of dealing with the media. A most unfortunate article, though hardly surprising. We mock what we don’t understand.

    • You are right, Dean, that the media often get things wrong because they have to write about things they don’t live everyday. Burgstone, though, is an engineer, entrepreneur, and college professor. He chose to write about this as a commentator, not a reporter. So I will be less forgiving in this case.

  2. I’ve read a few articles recently that suggest that lean and Six Sigma are at the heart of the downfall of Toyota and GE, saying the need to be faster and cheaper has impacted innovation and adaptability to the market changes. I don’t know if it’s about sensationalizing and screaming “lean is wrong!” but they are seriously mistaken when stating that lean implies rigidity and no flexibility. Lean doesn’t stifle innovation, but instead asks process users how things can be done better. Being inflexible and rigid is the antithesis of continuous improvement, or else it would be called “good enough.”

  3. He was right for the wrong reasons we need better articles to explain that there is very little lean in lean startup, and in fact it does much better without it, it’s a reasonable methods and does not need to hold onto lean buzz words. @leanvoices

  4. One thing to note is I really don’t think the mis-representations of lean are any worse than any of the other mis-representations. I might be wrong. But I think it is par for the course, which makes you wonder why you believe anything you read :-/

    You are of course right. ISO from lean is totally crazy. “designed to produce a million identical” is wrong but at least I can understand how people that barely glance at lean make this error. For one thing they can read lots of others saying it. Of course it is wrong.

    Understanding respect for people as a fundamental principle is very hard for people to get, it seems. Understanding going to the gemba (shop floor, customer interaction, customer use…) also seems hard for people to grok. Understanding “eliminating jobs”, treating people as cogs, making people work harder (Charlie Chaplin Modern Times style) seems easy to understand and adopt as a simplification (even if it isn’t right at all). Seeing 5s as stupid overly rigid control by the “man” seems easy to “accept” and then say is stupid while understanding the purpose and power of 5s seems hard to understand…

    I really think the biggest learning is to stop trusting “general purpose sources” and find experts that are trustworthy to learn about anything (management, investing, finance, science, health advice, education, athletics…). Of course that finding experts that are trustworthy process is not easy. Blogs have made it much much easier. Though there are plenty of blogs full of foolishness.

  5. Two whiches in his first sentence, clearly unlean & poor grammar….

    “…which was first developed after WWII, and which continues to be refined.

  6. Lean transformation always reminds me of the evolution of mixed martial arts. The original debate was which art was the most effective, that is no longer discussed. It’s quite obvious you must now train in all arts and then build your strategy based on your opponent. In business we must evolve our thinking beyond just Toyota and start incorporating the thinking of companies such as Apple. You can tout and receive every certification (ISO etc..) and still get choked out by the competition.


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