Rapid iteration. Minimum viable product. Feedback loops. One could be forgiven for wondering how the jargon of the Lean Startup model could be applicable to the work of international development organizations.

In fact, the Lean model has already successfully jumped cultural barriers, and is practiced in many diverse settings. Lean’s efficiency principles are derived from the titans of manufacturing in Japan. In the late 80s it was imported into modern day managerial theory and further applied by Eric Ries in 2008 to the entrepreneurial process. I first heard about the principles in 2009 during a lecture by Steve Blank and the concept really struck a chord with me. Fast forward a few years and Blank’s instructions to “get out of the building” and to “iterate and pivot” have made our social enterprise what it is today. We just use language that makes sense for our business.

UpEnergy Customers
UpEnergy Group customers

Our company, UpEnergy, is a for-profit social enterprise that distributes clean energy products to people in the developing world. We currently operate in Uganda where we have sold over 20,000 high efficiency cookstoves since our launch in October 2011.

We have a diverse team representing five nationalities, speaking four languages and physically spread over two continents, which can make communication challenging at times. Despite these challenges, our ability to rapidly iterate or quickly adapt to our changing environment is one of our core competencies thanks to the guiding principals of the Lean Startup.

How We Do It

This is how we integrate Lean logic into our business processes despite being thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley:

  1. Communicate – we introduce concepts to our team in simple language. They don’t have to know the jargon to implement the ideas effectively. In fact I’ve found that avoiding jargon altogether is the best approach. At UpEnergy, we never mention the words “minimum viable product” or “feedback loops.” Instead we talk about testing our ideas, measuring their success and then deciding how to move forward. We talk about getting to “good enough” and not striving for perfection before we put something out in the market.
  2. Start small – while the Lean model has much to give, we started with a handful of key concepts that we were 100% dedicated to promoting in our organization. Pick what makes sense for your organization.
  3. Reinforce – we have found that the more we reinforce these concepts in our decision making process, the more these philosophies have become embedded in our organization’s muscle memory.
  4. Empower – there’s nothing that can put an abrupt halt to innovation like bureaucracy. We try to empower our team to react real-time to information in the field and respond appropriately. If they have to wait until the next management meeting to run it by us, we’ve missed out on a really important opportunity to grow their confidence and to practice rapid iteration.
  5. Measure – we’ve all heard the famous saying that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Measurement is critical to draw conclusions from market tests especially in the chaotic environment of a startup in a developing world context. This is where pre-planning can make all the difference. You don’t want to be thinking about all the great metrics you could have gathered from that field test after it’s been completed.
  6. Assess and move forward – this is the part of the process that I personally enjoy the most. We discuss as a team, share anecdotal stories about customers, analyze data, and embrace that we are never going to have all the answers!

Learnings from the Field

In preparation for this post, I asked our Ugandan Sales Director, Edward Lubega, to think of an example of when we had used the results of a customer test to change our sales strategy:

Nsangi Ugandan women cooking“For me, a classic example of the benefit of starting small and learning from mistakes was when we tried to get some local women in the village to sell our stoves to their friends. The intention was to use the influence of women on one another to sell stoves. The concept was very persuading and perhaps if we decided to invest more money and time in it, it would have brought us more returns. But we soon learnt that the rural woman has more demands that are often more important than the opportunity to make an extra shilling or ten. We soon learnt that these women were not going to leave their gardens unattended for the sake of selling stoves even if stoves brought in cash and those gardens at best brought in daily food.”

This example highlights to me some of the assumptions that we make in the social impact sector that can lead us astray if left untested. We desperately wanted the initiative to succeed for all the benefit that it would generate for these communities and had convinced ourselves that we could get there if we just invested more money. Had we not adhered to our Lean mantra of test small and test often, we might have wasted important resources pursuing this approach with disappointing results.

Lean thinking introduces a valuable discipline to the way we think about our customers – what they think they want, what they really want, and how we can deliver those solutions. Lean principles have become an important part of our organization’s culture and it can become a valuable tool in your organization, no matter what terms you use to describe it. To paraphrase Shakespeare, what’s in a name anyway?

How do you talk about Lean principles in your organization?

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