Lean Startup: The Alternative to Design Thinking

Ensou, the zen circle of teaching.
Ensou, the zen circle of teaching.


So, you gave the Design Thinking process a shot at work and it didn’t work out? That sucks, but there’s an alternative to that approach. Some argue that Design Thinking falls short as it doesn’t address issues that happen downstream and that processes are not measurable in action (this can be debated).

According to the Innovation Master Series by Stanford on Design Thinking vs. Lean Startup, here is a summary on Design Thinking:

Design Thinking


  • Culture of creativity and innovation
  • Brings people together, empathy collaboration and action
  • Need finding (or problem finding) – getting beyond what people say and do to what they think and feel based on re-framing problems. Some needs are easy to see, others are deep
  • Implicit needs come from stories. People signal what’s important in behavior rather than tell you what they need because they don;t know.
  • Explicit needs  lead to incremental improvements (what you see as surface issues)
  • Empathic observation in the environment is the key
  • Prototyping and test cycles  provokes new questions and reveals needs
  • High impact with low investment
  • Dynamic approach to problem solving
  • Works well with poorly bounded problems , uses prototyping and iteration for rapid improvement and learning, includes many methods for generating alternatives to increase innovation outcomes
  • Human centered, co creation process focused on end user needs that yields the highest value for all stakeholders

With design thinking, we ask the following question: “Do we have the right problem in the first place?”

The process of Design thinking argues that good design changes the customers behavior that moves us to the ideal that we are going for. It is about being efficient and making good choices quickly for customers. This shuts down conflicts in conversation and decisions based on ego, such as “where I’m the designer I know what the customer wants or I’m the founder”.

Design Thinking Weaknesses

  • Design thinking fails to offer blueprint for failures in startup environments
  • Design thinking doesn’t have actionable measurement of in its processes
  • Does not directly address downstream issues such as business architecture, channel strategy, etc.
  • Design thinking finds the market fit and then selects implementation technologies

If you tried Design Thinking at your organization and it didn’t work, there’s an alternative that works off of similar principles, with more structure. The alternative is called the Lean Startup.

What’s The Lean Startup?

The cover of the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries uses the Zen Buddhist symbol of ensou, the circle of enlightenment, teaching, and reality. This circle expresses the “expression of movement” or the process of Japanese calligraphy. This symbol clearly symbolizes the Lean Startup’s message of examining the process of project life cycles.

What Are The Core Components Of The Lean Startup?

The process of the Lean Startup is a management blueprint for a startup or small teams that consists of management, measuring data, testing, learning, and has actionable versus vanity metrics. The lean startup is usually engineering/science focused. Engineers have a product that they have created, which triggers the implementation process, creation and then finding the market fit for the product. Usually in this type of situation, there is too much reliance on the “vision” of the founder and not enough emphasis on early need finding / empathy response for customer.

According to leanstartup.com: “Using the Lean Startup approach, companies can create order not chaos by providing tools to test a vision continuously. Lean isn’t simply about spending less money. Lean isn’t just about failing fast, failing cheap. It is about putting a process, a methodology around the development of a product.”

An example of a company that follows this approach is Toyota. According to the company’s about us page, Toyota lives by “a production system which is steeped in the philosophy of “the complete elimination of all waste” imbuing all aspects of production in pursuit of the most efficient methods.” The “lean manufacturing system” or a “Just-in-Time (JIT) system” is based on the core philosophy of jidoka, the Japanese word for “automation with a human touch” and “Just-in-Time” in which only what is needed is produced before the next step in the factory pipe line. Pretty deep stuff, yet it make sense.

Pivoting: The Strength Of The Lean Startup

The pivot is a change in product direction or strategy. This is based on a strategic hypothesis that is testable about product, business model or engine of growth. Think of your math classes: when something didn’t work, you’d try something else to solve the problem.


The first step in a project is figuring out the problem to solve. That step can be the hardest, as we can be pulled in different directions on various components of the problem while losing sight of the bigger problem. Once you’ve identified the precise problem, you may create the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which can then be measured and fine tuned. By the time you’re ready to launch you already have customers waiting to buy the product. You’re not making a product and then trying to see how it does in the market, you’re finding out what product needs to be made, then tested with customers throughout the project life cycle so you know you’ve got a winner. If you focus on figuring out the right product or service to create, the ones you know that the customers will buy (based on early involvement), then there’s no guessing on if this product will be a hit or not. You don’t have to have a long beta launch because you’ve been making incremental changes with actual customers using the product to know what was working and what wasn’t working, fine tuned, perfected. This is taking a scientific approach to the project lifecycle process.  If something isn’t working, you can adjust it without a major change to the whole project because you know you’ve been going down the right path.

MVP: Minimum Viable Product

To the detriment of us sports fans, MVP in this case doesn’t stand for the Most Valuable Player. This acronym in the business world stands for Minimum Viable product (MVP), which is a version of a product that allows a team to collect the maximum amount of learning about customers with the least effort and money spent on implementation. This allows ideas to be turned into products which are then measured with data collection on customer response. From there, the company can decide to move forward on their original plan or pivot by either tweaking the product, scrapping the product or some other strategic move to get the most out of their investment. This is also called build-measure-learn.

It’s best to pick riskiest idea first. As innovators in the world, good design aims to change customer behavior towards the ideal. We don’t want the customers to always drive the design because then there’s no true game changers. Think of the iPod. That was started with a vision and wouldn’t had been possible without challenging the status quo.

Do you use the Lean Startup practices at your organization? How did you introduce it into the culture and what were the results?

Tools and Resources:

The Lean Start Up: http://theleanstartup.com/principles

Stanford Master Series on Design Thinking vs. The Lean Startup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snxicC5cI9A

Lean Manufacturing at Toyota: http://www.toyota-global.com/company/vision_philosophy/toyota_production_system/

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