A polished wooden table covered with neatly laid out papers. The papers show various charts with sections and bars colored in shades of blue and orange. A hand attached to someone out of frame points to one of the charts (an orange circle showing a percentage).
The Lean method of product development is most popularly used by major companies like Toyota, Nike and Intel, but a mindset of minimizing waste can benefit small businesses too. — Getty Images/courtneyk

You may be familiar with the Lean ideology in relation to project management. Essentially, the Lean methodology seeks to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. It originates from Toyota at a time when the company sought to reduce the physical waste resulting from its manufacturing processes. Today, the Lean approach has been translated into everything from project management to executive coaching to product development.

The principles of Lean product development

“Lean” is shorthand for the Lean methodology, a mindset or perspective that emphasizes less of everything. To that end, there are five principles of Lean that specifically relate to the product development process. These principles are:

  1. Define and maximize customer value: How does the product you are developing solve a problem for the customer? How can you eliminate or minimize waste in delivering a customer-oriented solution?
  2. Identify your “value stream: Bringing a product to market requires collaboration between designers, manufacturers, shipping companies, investors and other key stakeholders. Lean product development recommends bringing all stakeholders into the process early in order to align on goals and remove potential obstacles from the outset.
  3. Create a flow by eliminating waste: This principle sounds a little obscure, but essentially, aim to eliminate steps in the product development process that are redundant, wasteful or inefficient. As one expert puts it, “understand what adds value and what doesn’t, and what tasks can be accomplished at the same time without waiting on dependencies.”
  4. Respond to customer pull: “Pull,” or customer demand, should drive your product development. Constantly ask for feedback by working with focus groups, polling your friends and family or presenting a minimum viable product to collect insights as you grow.
  5. Learn and improve: Take a moment after you complete a product development cycle to understand what worked and what didn’t, making the process more efficient, streamlined and repeatable each time.

[Read more: How to Create a Prototype]

Ultimately, Lean product development is all about bringing to life a product idea with speed, efficiency, minimum waste and maximum quality.

Understand what adds value and what doesn’t, and what tasks can be accomplished at the same time without waiting on dependencies.

Leslie Bloom, Dozuki

How do companies use Lean product development?

Lean product development can seem a little abstract, but there are big-name brands that use this process in their R&D teams. Toyota is perhaps the most famous; the company is practically synonymous with Lean after the Toyota Production System was created.

The Toyota Production System was developed to meet the needs and changing tastes of a growing middle class following World War II. At the time, consumers wanted cars that came in different shapes, sizes and colors, which required different materials, production lines and types of skilled labor. Toyota developed a manufacturing approach that sought to meet this demand with a system that minimizes waste while maximizing product quality, price and good design.

Intel then applied a similar perspective in their microchip development. “With items so precise and technical, Intel quickly realized that producing a higher quantity of lower quality was not the way to improve profits and increase customer satisfaction,” explained RefinedImpact. Intel used Lean product development to provide higher quality chips in a fraction of the time it used to take.

[Read more: What Is a Product Market Grid?]

Companies like John Deere and Nike have also used Lean product development to reduce waste in their supply chains and continuously create products that customers love. But Lean product development can be easily adapted to work for small businesses, too.

Lean product development for small businesses

Lean product development is great for business owners who are working with limited resources. It emphasizes a learning-first approach in which time is spent learning from customers and key partners in the supply chain. This approach can help ensure that every dollar invested in product development is well-spent. The emphasis on eliminating waste and moving efficiently helps small businesses, in particular, capitalize on a new idea and beat big enterprises to market.

To get started with Lean product development, start with a significant amount of planning and research. Find partners who are able to help realize your product, streamline your design and development process and ask customers for feedback along the way.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Follow us on Instagram for more expert tips & business owners’ stories.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

Join us for our Small Business Day event!

Join us at our next event on Wednesday, May 1, at 12:00 p.m., where we’ll be kicking off Small Business Month alongside business experts and entrepreneurs. Register to attend in person at our Washington, D.C., headquarters, or join us virtually!