What is Lean Marketing?
To be an effective marketer today is a true balancing act. You have to think strategically, but maintain a sense of creativity. You have to be data-driven, but also forward-thinking. But most importantly - you need to be able to focus. With thousands of channels and mediums available to market to prospects and customers, and hundreds of marketing tools to choose from when creating our tech stacks, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. As marketers, it’s easy to get caught up in chasing metrics that don’t serve us, or pursuing ideas that look good on paper, but don’t actually create meaningful value for our customers.
Lean is a way of thinking about work that has been helping teams in all disciplines - including marketing - create more value and get more done. Read to learn the core principles of Lean marketing and see if Lean marketing is right for you.
What is Lean?
At its core, Lean is a way of thinking. It’s a mindset that helps you make smarter decisions about how to invest your time, energy, and money. Lean thinking can help you find clarity and purpose in your work, by helping you sift through the noise and focus on what matters. When scaled across a team or organization, this type of thinking has the power to transform, revitalize, and inspire. It can turn a dysfunctional, ineffective group of people into a value-generating powerhouse.
Lean is also a practice - something you do daily, aiming to always improve. It’s rooted in the idea that people want to do good work - and organizations want to provide environments that inspire them to do so. However, often individuals, teams, and entire companies are so entangled by the status quo - their existing processes, tools, ways of thinking, leadership styles - that they lose the ability to innovate.
By practicing Lean, we can slowly unravel the complexity in our work and resume the flow of productivity and innovation.
Core Lean Marketing Principles
The core Lean principles (and Lean Marketing) are as follows:
Continuous improvement is a commitment to always striving to be better -- it’s a dedication to challenging the status quo. Continuous improvement is rooted in a commitment to learning.
Traditionally, Lean was synonymous with cutting: costs, waste, people, etc. Today’s Lean focuses on adding value, rather than removing waste. Here’s why: By focusing only on value-adding activities, we create systems that produce value, and in doing so remove wasteful practices from our systems. If we focus only on cutting waste, we might be suboptimizing the whole, without actually benefiting the customer.
For Lean marketers, a commitment to continuous improvement is a way to ensure that the things you’re spending your time on are actually generating the most value for your customers. Marketing requires us to automate certain activities, in order to maintain a balance between ongoing work - like scheduling social media posts and driving traffic to the website - and project-driven work, like redesigning the website or preparing for a big event.
It’s easy to fall into the practice of “set it and forget it” in marketing - you create a plan, you launch it, and then you hope for the best, without following through to see if the plan you created actually achieved its intended goal. Continuous improvement encourages us to follow the cycle of identifying a problem, planning a solution, executing that solution, and then spending time reviewing how that solution played out in real life.
Optimize the Whole
Lean thinking teaches us that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. In order to create the most value as an organization, with our limited resources, we have to optimize across our value stream. Of course, this requires us to understand how value flows through our organizations – which is easier said than done. As Lean marketers, we have to work hard to ensure that the activities we’re devoting ourselves to are truly in the best interest of the team’s collective efforts - not just our pet projects. This Lean principle helps us remember to ask ourselves, “Is this going to help our team achieve its goals?” It forces us to have the important conversations about our priorities.
Lean thinking encourages this definition of waste: If your customer wouldn’t pay for it, it’s waste. Waste, in knowledge work, can be anything from context switching, to too much work in process, to time spent manually completing a task that could be automated. Lean thinkers are relentless about eliminating any process, activity, or practice that does not result in value for the customer.
There are certain activities that inherently include more “waste” in Lean marketing - design work, for example, might require several rounds of brainstorming and iterating before it becomes truly valuable. There are also activities where we tend to build waste in - such as by having multiple people aggressively edit a single blog post, or having recurring team meetings without a clear agenda. The Lean principle of eliminate waste helps us to make decisions around what waste is truly necessary as part of our process - and what waste is simply wasteful.
Build Quality In
Lean companies set themselves up for sustainable growth by practicing the Lean principle of Building Quality In. The concept is fairly simple: Automate and standardize any tedious, repeatable process, or any process that is prone to human error. This allows Lean companies to error-proof significant portions of their value streams, so they can focus their energy on creating value for their customers.
For Lean marketers, building quality in means doing things right the first time. Although marketers are generally perfectionistic in nature, they also are constantly under pressure to do more, faster. For the sake of speed, it’s tempting to try to find the quickest fix, the first-thought solution, the fastest way to get something out the door. Building quality in allows us to see the forest for the trees - and recognize that taking a little more time now to do something could pay off in time savings down the road.
This principle can be applied to everything from selecting BI software that exactly fits your needs, to taking time to think through your team’s blogging process to reduce duplicate effort, to spending a few weeks fine-tuning your brand’s social media aesthetic so that it’s easier to maintain it down the road.
When a piece of work reaches your customer, it’s valuable. Until then, it isn’t. The Lean principle of Deliver Fast by Managing Flow is based on the idea that the faster we can deliver bits of value to our customers, the sooner we can begin to learn from customer feedback. The more we learn from our customers, the better able we are to give them exactly what they want. In order to deliver fast in Lean Marketing, we have to manage flow — by limiting work in process and maintaining a relentless focus on value delivery.
This might seem contradictory to the principle of building quality in, but it is not. Building quality in means taking time to design systems that work for you - delivering fast is a benefit of that. You cannot do one without the other - you cannot deliver fast with broken systems, nor can you build quality in without having a higher-level awareness of your workflow.
The Lean principle of Create Knowledge is related to the concept of Optimizing the Whole. A Lean organization is a learning organization — it grows and develops through analyzing the results of small, incremental experiments. In order to retain that information as an organization, the learning must be shared. The Lean principle of Create Knowledge says that Lean organizations have to provide the infrastructure to properly document and retain valuable learning.
As Lean marketers, we have to create environments that allow space for learning. Lean thinking supports the notion that we have to devote as much focus to improvement efforts as we do to project work. We create knowledge, and thereby improve, by taking the time to have retrospectives, hold team meetings to discuss how work is being done, and taking the time to cross-train our employees. By creating knowledge throughout our teams, we’re able to deliver faster with more value.
In the section on eliminating waste, we discussed how agenda-less team meetings are wasteful, and should be eliminated if possible. Taking time to create knowledge in your team is the opposite of a pointless, recurring meeting - it’s a purposeful, goal-oriented time that is truly essential to your growth. You have to intentionally plan for and set time aside for these opportunities for learning, or they will not happen - which is why many marketing teams are unintentionally operating in systems that are inherently, painfully wasteful.
Businesses often feel an artificial pressure to plan, make decisions, and complete work far in advance of when that specific value is needed by the market. This leads to a lack of flexibility that is necessary to continuously deliver value to customers.
The Lean thinking principle of Defer Commitment encourages organizations to make decisions at the last responsible moment, in order to continuously make decisions based on the most up-to-date, relevant, comprehensive information.
As Lean marketers, it’s fun to create big visions for what we’ll be doing 1, 3, 6, 12, and 24 months from now - it feels purposeful, and strategic, and necessary. This Lean principle asks us to examine the actual worthiness of this exercise. Is it worth our time today, to try to predict exactly what we’ll need to be doing 2 years from now? Could our time be better spent focusing on analyzing the data we have today, to strategically plan our next move tomorrow?
This might sound irresponsible, but actually, the opposite is true: If we complete work before we truly understand the needs of the market, we could spend time, money, and energy on work that’s undesirable to the market — which then leaves us with the choice of either releasing something undesirable, or accepting that work as waste. Deferring commitment gives us the agility to continuously deliver value.
Lean thinking reminds us that the majority of the value created in organizations is in the heads of employees — and that in order to retain those employees, organizations have to create environments for employees to do their best work. Retaining quality talent is essential for creating a sustainable, value-generating system.
Lean Marketing organizations respect their employees by giving them what they need to do good work. They create environments where the best ideas can be heard. They encourage employees to pursue educational opportunities. They give employees the autonomy to make decisions based on what is best for the customer.
In return, employees do their best work. They work in the best interest of the customer, continuously innovating and growing. They treat each other with respect by being transparent, communicative, and supportive to one another. They stay committed to the company’s vision, and allow it to drive their decisions.
As Lean marketers, respect for people means keeping the voice of the customer in our ears at all times - in everything we do. It means recognizing that our best and biggest ideas are only as good as our ability to listen and understand the people we are trying to reach.
To learn more about what Lean can do for your marketing team, we recommend the following Lean resources: