#LeanStartup Conference 2012 Notes – Get Out of the Building


In his kickoff to the Lean Startup Conference, Eric Ries promised that there was so much content and so many speakers crammed into the day that we would all have a headache at some point. Yes, that came true for me. But, it was a very inspiring and thought-provoking day… with over 700 attendees in person (often crammed shoulder to shoulder worse than coach seating) and I met people from UAE, Finland, Norway, Japan, Uruguay, and other countries (plus there were 10,000 watching via the internet).

The room was crammed (a bit too tight) and the agenda was jammed (maybe also too tight), but I'm glad I could attend.

I took some notes via a Google doc and I also posted linked to some other summaries (here, here and another here) and in one case, almost a transcript. The video and slides will be available online very soon.

Eric Ries is, in a way, Jim Womack-like, in humbly submitting that the people in the audience are the ones doing the real work and heavy lifting of entrepreneurship. While, like Womack, Ries has provided a very helpful framework (The Lean Startup) and people flock to him for that. The event is admittedly part “revival meeting” (as are the LEI events), but Ries emphasized, in his closing remarks, that the Lean Startup is hardly a monolithic methodology… there was a lot of disagreement and contradictory advice given by the speakers and it's still an evolving field.

There's way too much to share, but here are some of my key points:

The event had a VERY fast pace. Many (all?) presentations were 12 minutes long. This forced everyone to have a very tight message, but limited the depth and didn't allow for audience Q&A. The quality of the speakers (their content and presentation skills) was very high… it was a nice departure from the typical conference with a lot of 50 minute talks. My advice to other conferences would be to vary things… some 30 or 50-minute talks when merited, but do more short talks, more 1×1 conversations with a host (for example, the Eric Ries chats on stage with GE's chief marketing officer Beth Comstock and with internet legend Mark Andreessen were a nice alternative to a canned presentation).

One of the major themes of the Lean Startup approach is that company founders need to “get out of the building” to go talk to customers — to see their problems first hand and to deeply understand their pain points as a way of validating your company (or invalidating it and realizing that after two days instead of wasting two years on a bad business idea). People even wear t-shirts that say “GET OUT OF THE BUILDING.”

There are great parallels with Lean management in a factory or a hospital, where Lean leaders “get out of the office” to go see where the work is done and to talk with patients and customers. Toyota famously gets out into the field to see how customers in different countries use their vehicles so they can design them to better meet customer needs (ala the customer buying a 1/4″ hole in a piece of wood rather than buying a 1/4″ drill).

At the Lean Startup Conference, nobody talked about “gemba” (the Japanese word for the actual place) or “genchi genbutsu” (go and see). In Lean Manufacturing (and often in Lean Healthcare), people can sometimes overuse for fetish-ize Japanese words in a way that can be off putting to some or create barriers to learning and acceptance. I know at least one American healthcare organization that has an unwritten rule of “no Japanese words” – which I think is a bit extreme, but this is coming from a guy who wrote a book about “kaizen.” :-) In all things moderation, including Japanese words.

But, I reflected on how the Lean Startup movement seems to eschew Japanese words (although Eric Ries cites Toyota's Taiichi Ohno as a legend in his book and probably used a few of those Japanese words).

Either way, we need to communicate in terms that people understand. One talk at yesterday's conference was about how startups need to have marketing language that customers can actually understand. Sounds obvious, eh? We are getting better at that over at my startup KaiNexus, where potential customers increasingly “get it” after reviewing our website (the initial discussion doesn't take as long if somebody has contacted us after seeing our site). Our site isn't perfect, but we're always trying to improve it.

I'll post more notes from the conference in some future posts. Thanks to Eric and all the organizers for an energizing (yet tiring!) day.

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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. Mark, I couldn’t agree more about the need to use terms people understand. We have been dropping the Japanese words and, in fact, most of the LSS jargon in our presentations to lawyers and law firms – we’ve seen far too many eyes glaze over. Instead, we focus on common sense and market to lawyers in terms they understand: you can be more effective, more profitable and more competitive.

    • Thanks for the comment and for sharing how you are approaching things, Karen.

      I think many Lean consultants would benefit from the wisdom of the Lean Startup movement… focus on your customer’s problems and needs rather than focusing on what “you do.” Sometimes, the overuse of Japanese words is more about showing off how much one knows or how they’re part of the club instead of really serving a customer’s or client’s needs.

      • I think you are right in suggesting Lean implementations often lose focus of the customer, especially in healthcare where a whole industry is mostly failing to improve patient satisfaction scores beyond a certain level and where understanding intangible or unexpressed aspects of satisfaction remains elusive.

        • At the “Lean Startup” conference last Monday, nobody talked about 5S-ing one’s computer programmer desk :-)

          The approach (including the books by Eric Ries, Ash Maurya, Steve Blank, etc.) should be reinvigorating to anybody who has lost track that Lean/TPS is supposedly to be insanely customer focused.

          The Lean Startup crowd runs the risk of being lost in tools, as well, but I’m impressed with the passion around solving customer problems over cool technology. This is a positive trend for business.

  2. The new Kainexus website looks good. Based on my experience, few people have engaged in effective brainstorming. Usually it has been you do this part, I’ll do that part, etc.

    A doctor on your site talks about an accomplishment that took place entirely on Kainexus. She said it was a long 9 month project. I think customers would learn a good lesson by actually reading the brainstorming thread. Or a highlight of the thread if it is a long read.

  3. Julia said all the communication between nurse, doctor, etc was done on Kainexus. This communication is what I call the brainstorming thread. How did they get from 50% to 30% embedded dialysis catheter? There must have been some good ideas.

    I like brainstorming. The manufacturers I worked for didn’t provide many brainstorming opportunities. I’m thinking they do not know what brainstorming looks like.

  4. Here’s an example of a brainstorming thread from manufacturing:

    Ann in the Technical Services department logs in customer complaints and sends these complaints and samples to the R&D department. Ann gets swamped with customer complaints regarding paint peeling off gym floors. She adds an irritation into the online kaizen forum, “Paint is peeling off customers’ gym floors at an abnormally high rate.”

    Fred notices no one complains about red paint. It always adheres to gym floors. He does a pareto chart to confirm his observation. Fred enters this observation.

    Sarah applies all the gym colors to wood. None of the colors, including red, consistently adhere to wood.

    Kevin decides a different substrate is needed for testing adhesion. He applies red paint to everything he can find: steel, aluminum, ceramic tile, glass, etc. Kevin discovers red paint always adheres to glass. The colors peeling off customers’ floors do not adhere to glass.

    With a reliable paint adhesion test, the company learned different colored paint required different amounts of bonding agent. This company was not a paint manufacturer; their supplier had to ensure the paint adhered to glass before shipment.


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