Lean Innovation is About Learning to Learn

In a world moving faster than ever, the ability to innovate quickly is critical for businesses hoping to maintain a competitive edge. This means creating innovative productsbut also finding innovative ways to work smarter and more efficiently. Forward-thinking businesses are turning to Lean innovation techniques to encourage innovation in thought, product, and process. Read to learn how to breed a culture of Lean innovation in your organization through a mindset of experimentation, learning, and growth.

What is Lean Innovation?

Because of its roots in automotive manufacturing, many equate Lean with the reduction of waste (you can read more about the history of Lean here). While most Lean implementations do aim to reduce waste, this is more of a side effect than a primary goaland organizations won’t create a culture of innovation from waste reduction efforts alone. One key element missing from many “Lean” implementations is this: That the goal is to optimize value creationnot just cut waste.

At its heart, Lean innovation is about learning - and practicing Lean, at the organizational level, is about creating an environment that enables learning.

In many organizations, learning is equated with formal training - but this is only one avenue of learning. Professionals at every level - from individual contributors to executives - follow processes, create products, and perform functions in their daily work. Limiting professional learning to formal training fails to recognize the endless learning opportunities within the work we do every day.

Lean organizations recognize that every project, process, and procedure is an experiment - and every experiment is an opportunity for learning. When applied holistically, the two pillars of Lean, continuous improvement and respect for people, can help organizations capitalize upon these learning opportunities to drive innovation and growth.

Creating A Culture of Learning

Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement (also called Kaizen) is a Lean practice that provides the disciplined approach teams need to keep improvement as their top priority. Continuous improvement follows a similar pattern to the scientific method:

  • Identify: Identify a specific problem or improvement opportunity.
  • Plan: Brainstorm ideas for resolving or optimizing the situation. Determine success criteria. Create a plan.
  • Execute: Implement changes in a controlled manner.
  • Review: Formally analyze how the change affected the original problem. Discuss successes, failures, and opportunities for improvement Document everything to assist in future improvement efforts.

A Nielsen study of innovation best practices showed that using the continuous improvement method can have a noticeable impact on the bottom line. Researchers found that:

  • Companies with mandatory formal debriefs of both success and failure following new product launches average about 100% more revenue from new products in comparison to companies that don’t formally debrief.
  • When debriefs are led by an outside third party, the revenue increases substantially more.
  • And when the learnings are captured in a knowledge management system, revenue jumps again.
  • Companies that apply these learnings to creating, continuously improving, and strictly following decision-making criteria for the evaluation of potential new products average about 130% more revenue from new products. (source)

The continuous improvement method can encourage a learning mindset across the organization, fostering innovation and growth. How do you get started?

The Importance of Executive Champions

Our research finds that executive champions are found in an overwhelming majority of successful Lean transformations - so, if you’re an executive, practicing what you preach can go a long way. If you’d like to learn more about practicing Lean leadership, we recommend this blog and this webinar by one of our founders.

If you’re a middle manager, sharing Lean articles with forward-thinking executives could get them onboard. We recommend this ebook about Lean in business and this blog post by our co-CEO about the new Lean.

Respect for People (a virtuous, productive cycle)

The Lean practice of respect for people is based on a few business truths: If you don’t respect your customers, you won’t create products or services they love. If you don’t respect your employees, they won’t do their best work. If you don’t respect everyone in your business’ ecosystem, the system will never be fully optimized for innovation.

The Lean practice of respect for people is not just about being kinder to people in a dictionary sense. Whether or not your organization actively practices respect for people can have a serious impact on your ability to innovate. Respect for people creates a virtuous, productive cycle, where employees do their best work and products and services satisfy customer needs. Without a culture of respect, organizations can never truly optimize for innovation.

So how do you begin actualizing respect? You create the space for experimentation, learning, and growth.


To encourage experimentation, you have to celebrate experimentation — regardless of the results. You have to reward a methodical process, even if it leads to an unsuccessful idea or two. Celebrating learning, rather than success, encourages real innovation because it removes the fear of failure. Allowing your employees the freedom to experiment is one of the best things you can do for their sense of professional fulfillment.


The real beauty of Lean innovation is that it helps the best ideas surface — not just the ideas of the highest paid person in the room. Here’s how: Because Lean teams respect their customers, they use the voice of the customer to guide decisions about their products and services. They use customer data and learning from past experiments to create more value for their customers. They are curious - always hunting for ways to align more closely with their customers’ needs.

Zander Lurie, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, said it this way: “If you want to stay competitive as an employer of choice and provide growth opportunities for all your teams, be curious. If you want your organization to be more customer-centric and take market share, be curious. This singular trait, curiosity, will determine which firms will thrive and which ones will stumble.”


Creating products customers really want means less waste. Less waste means more growth, and a greater potential for growth as well.

Giving your employees freedom to make informed decisions means that they have the opportunity to do their best work. If you’re looking to increase innovation in your organization, start by unlocking the innovation within it.

Try LeanKit Free!

You're in good company.

Our customers are the best. Read their stories.

Learn More about LeanKit