This is part one of a four-part look at three Lean tools for product development. Click here to read part two about the customer journey value stream, click here to read part three about Kano analysis and here to read part four about quality function deployment.

Recently, I was reading through an old staple of Lean canon: Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones. First published in 1996, the original text, for the most part, feels dated. The case studies are from the early 1980s and there is very little talk about computers, the internet or any other technology we would describe as modern. Yet in the midst of the antiquated examples something struck me as fresh and exciting: Womack and Jones spend an incredible amount of time talking about Lean product development and innovation. And still, 25 years later, Lean hardly seems to have gained any ground in product development.

In the spirit of a root cause analysis, let me ask: Why? Why hasn’t Lean revolutionized product development like it has operations? In saving the space of asking why four more times, I’ll tell you my conclusion. We don’t share product development knowledge. In Lean workshops we discuss flow, the gemba and customer pull. We reserve the tools used in product development like the Kano model and quality function deployment for Black Belt classes – and sometimes not even then! Our organizations lumber on as a few Black Belts hoard the knowledge and the tools capable of revolutionizing these organizational functions. As a Black Belt myself, this is a tough pill to swallow – yet it feels true.

Before I start rattling off tools and techniques there is one fundamental shift in thinking that needs to take place. Gemba is traditionally translated as where the work is done. It is almost second nature to think of the factory floor as synonymous with the gemba. To engineers, operations managers and front-line leaders, this makes sense. It is the place that will feel the impact of the changes we propose. It’s a sound Lean principle to “go and see” where our efforts are directed. However this isn’t true of product development. The gemba is located somewhere else. To product development teams, the factory floor is not the place their efforts are directed. A product developer cannot “go and see” how the product changes have impacted the end user by going to the factory floor. For a new product, the gemba is the customer himself. In order to “go and see,” Lean innovators must interact with the customer.

Empathy and the Gemba

To this end, the purpose of the gemba also changes. Rather than simply observing the operation like in a traditional manufacturing setting, the purpose for interacting with the customer is also to empathize with the customer. “Go and feel” might usurp the traditional “go and see” mentality. Why empathize? Unlike traditional operations, you might not always know what the key performance indicators (KPIs) of the customers are. You need to discover alongside of them what delights them and what they’re looking for in a product. Your tools will only be as good as the gemba. The gemba is like crude oil and the tools refine it. They will not work if the crude is still in the dirt.

Extreme Users and Experts

If you’ve accepted that empathy is a worthwhile approach to the gemba of innovation, perhaps you’re wondering who you need to empathize with. If you haven’t asked this question, you ought to. Not all customers are created equal. The insights you’ll learn from one group will be wildly different from others. Let me mention just one group that is noteworthy and should be sought out: extreme users.

Extreme users are the people who are using the product right now to its absolute limit. They are the ones who are more familiar with the product or service than any other person and they also already have ideas on how to make things better. Go to the grocery store and find the single mother of five trying desperately to get what she needs, corral her kids and get back home as quickly as possible only to do it all again a few days later. Her experience is extreme. Each time she goes into the store she pushes the limit of the regular shopping experience. She knows the most efficient path to travel through the store, the exact capacity of a shopping cart, in what aisle every item on her list is located and how to select the fastest checkout line. Conversations with her will yield more insight than a conversation with a lone bachelor making his monthly run for condensed soup. This is not to say that the needs of our lone bachelor go unmet. On the contrary, since he is an average user his needs are met perfectly by the existing design of the grocery store, shopping cart and checkout system.

This principle is foreshadowed in Lean. “Respect for people” teaches us to go and talk to the operators. It’s Lean dogma that the operators have some of the best ideas for small Kaizens because they are the ones using the machine every day. They are the extreme users in a manufacturing setting, the engineers are not.

Total Customer Experience

If that’s what’s different about the gemba, there is also a lot that is similar. One transferable concept is the end-to-end value stream. Customers never interact with a product in a vacuum. There is always a process that prepares the user to interact with a product and a process for terminating the interaction. As an example, when I go to drive my car, I have to put on shoes, find my keys, grab my wallet, walk out of my house and lock the door to my house all before I even open the door to my car. In the gemba, it’s important to be sensitive to the mechanisms that are needed to interact with the products. Often, innovations arise and customer value is augmented when a product reduces the amount of preparation needed for a product or expands the scope of the product.

To this point, current product development practices could learn a lot from Lean theories and frameworks. Traditionally, product development is innately focused on the product itself. How it functions, how much it costs and the aesthetic all get more than their fair share of their attention from industrial designers. As the first tool in this series demonstrates, and what should be very familiar to lean belts, is that lots of opportunities are overlooked because the entire value stream is not being considered.


Belts have done little to move the needle forward. We have spent an unfair amount of our efforts focused on operational continuous improvement and not enough time focused on improving our approaches to delivering customer value wherever the opportunity exists, including through product design itself.

In order to make this change, we need to improve our own approaches.

  1. The knowledge of Lean innovation and product development needs to be shared more readily than it has been in the past.
  2. We need to develop dexterity in applying the tools to real business practices in learning better ways of applying these tools, and then sharing the new best practices.
  3. We need to refresh our thinking about what it means to deliver customer value and see in the gemba.

I addresses task 3 here. I’ve introduced the gemba of lean innovation not as the factory floor, but as the place of customer interactions and I’ve provided context to build out an operational definition of what a good product development gemba should include: extreme users and a view of the entire value stream. The changes are not all that different from operational applications of Lean methods. We are still focused on respect for people, customer pull, flow and, of course, customer value.

Click here to read part two about the customer journey value stream.

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