Lean has a strong history in the manufacturing world, from Toyota’s groundbreaking approach to managing work in the 1940s through to today’s innovative global leaders in automotive and aerospace manufacturing, and more. Traditionally, Lean has been used on the shop floor in production lines. Today, we are seeing more and more businesses using Lean to manage work in product development before it ever hits the floor.

Five Things Top Performers Do Differently to Deliver Profitable, Innovative Products

Read the whitepaper • Five Things Top Performers Do Differently to Deliver Profitable, Innovative Products

Planview’s Innovation Management Solution

Creating a Culture of Innovation

Watch the solution demo • Planview’s Innovation Management Solution

What is Lean Product Development?

Product development teams are responsible for designing new products that improve the lives of their end customers. This is a complex space, where the gap between development, delivery of value, and feedback can be wider than other industries.

For example, feedback on the decision to design a certain feature will not be received until the product has been built and is in the hands of the customer. This means that many design and development decisions are made iteratively, relying on short-cycle experimentation, prototypes, set-based design, and emergent practice. A premium is placed on creating reusable knowledge and reducing risk at handoff points throughout the development process.

When we talk about Lean Product Development, we are really examining how we place Lean thinking and concepts upon the product development process. Lean thinking requires us to apply a cultural context, in addition to a set of methods and tools.

Lean thinking includes key principles and behaviors that lead to a state of continuous improvement. Both the methodology and the culture instituted by Lean practice must be present to achieve success with a true, Lean system.


When it comes to implementation, there are two key perspectives to consider.

  1. Lean development of product which results in more efficient and effective development processes. This perspective is commonly applied in manufacturing companies today.
  2. Lean development throughout the entire value stream, from design through distribution, delivery, and sales. When implementing Lean, product engineers should consider the full system to prevent creating downstream effects for their waste. This perspective is often overlooked, but it is equally as important as the first!

We see Lean implemented in product development in several common ways, including:

  • Improving visibility, coordination, and flow of work using visual work planning and management
  • Building the creation, capture, and reuse of knowledge into the system
  • Breaking down knowledge, cross-function, and process silos by considering the entire value stream
  • Encouraging teams to work autonomously, planning their own work

3 Reasons Lean Product Development Works

1. It combines methods and tools with culture and behaviors

Many organizations seek to improve performance in a sustainable way. Lean not only contains methods and tools, but also the glue that makes improvement stick: A system of team and leader behaviors that enable organizations to sustain and continuously improve performance.

Common methods and tools used in Lean Product Development include set-based engineering, rapid learning cycles, chief engineers, and visual planning, such as Kanban. Common behaviors include daily work management using visual boards, kamishibai (checking on the use of standards), and kaizen (improvement by everyone, everywhere, every time).

2. It balances efficiency and effectiveness

Efficiency helps us reduce time and effort spent on actions that do not add any value to the customer. Efficient innovation requires a clear understanding of which process steps add to creating value and which steps don’t, as well as the ability to remove or minimize those non-value adding tasks.

Effectiveness ensures that we don’t end up developing the wrong product, whether or not the process thereof is efficient.

Effective innovation requires true customer understanding to create a valuable product proposition, in combination with a clear understanding of how you can earn money with that proposition.

3. It emphasizes knowledge work

Lean Product Development requires a paradigm shift that emphasizes focus on the initial stages of the product development process, which are typically knowledge work stages. It places priority on identifying critical knowledge gaps, a practice referred to as “Learning First.”

These knowledge gaps are filled by teams as they determine technology that will be used, insights on consumer interaction, and key risks in the proposition and business case. This approach to knowledge work is a big change for many, as most organizations are used to defining requirements as quickly as possible, choosing a concept, testing, and iterating from there.

Why Lean Product Development Starts with Visual Planning Tools

Even a cursory glance at the practices employed by Lean organizations (or those who aspire to be Lean), would reveal one common denominator: visual planning methods.

Planning complex development projects is tedious and hard. Most team and project managers spend a significant part of their time creating, updating, and tracking their planning efforts. Maintaining a high-level overview of the key tasks often proves to be hard, especially for those not directly involved, such as managers that want to review project logic and executives whose perspective is at a higher, corporate initiative level.

Using visual methods like Kanban is an intuitive and accessible approach, which provides a low threshold for teams to make small incremental steps to improve the way they work. It also reduces the need to verbally translate and explain the status of project tasks by conveying insight based on easily recognizable visual cues such as card positioning, color, symbology, and more.

Initial success with visual planning tools, even if relatively small, can quickly become the driver for more positive change. Visual planning tools reinforce transparent outcomes and help teams establish a framework for controlled risk-taking in their pursuit of continuous improvement.