Summary from Roland Mueller and Katja Thoring conference Paper for the 2012 International Design Management Research, DMI. 

03/10/2015  by Serge Van Oudenhove

The Lean Startup concept is an appropriate choice for creating new businesses through development of an already existing idea or vision. Design thinking, on the other hand, might be preferred if the right business idea has not been found yet and customer needs or problems are still vague. Therefore, both approaches should be capable of complementing and benefiting from each other. An interesting conference paper from Roland M. Mueller and Katja Thoring discusses the integration of both approaches, resulting in a combined process model. The authors highlight the following potentials to improve either of the two innovation concepts.

« Lean principles were developed in the early seventies by Toyota in Japan, called lean manufacturing, to optimize production processes (Womack, 2003). The idea of lean principles is to make the production process more efficient by reducing any sort of waste in the process. By now, lean principles have become also important for general management, and other disciplines like IT development, which make use of lean concepts but transfer them also to on manufacturing contexts.  In 2011, Eric Ries develop the concept of “lean Start-up” and a start-up is defined as “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Department in a big company could be a start-up. Lean Start-up evolved from the “customer development method” from Steve Blank. This leads to developing solutions based on a user-centered approach and adapting to customers needs. The aim of lean start-up is to build a continuous feedback loop with customers during product development cycles (Maurya, 2012). It tries to test the core business assumptions early in the product development process, sometimes even before any product is built at all. Lean Start-up can be easily resume in on sentences: “The biggest waste is creating a product service that nobody needs”.

Based on designerly methods and principles, this strategy was developed by the design consultancy IDEO in the late 90s (Kelley & Littman, 2001).  Similar to lean startup, design thinking is also focusing on users or customers. Design thinking makes use of extensive user research, feedback loops and iteration cycles. 

The most significant difference between the two strategies is that the lean learning cycle is arranged in a circular form, while the design thinking process is arranged in a linear way.



For more information on the lean startup and design thinking subject, please refer to the Lean Start-up arcticle and the Desing Thinking Article in our blog.

The article present also a very interessant table that provides an overview and comparison of the important aspects in design thinking.


Potential to improve Design Thinking

There is potential to improve the design thinking process by converging the two strategies in terms of the iteration. Pivoting as it is practiced in lean startup seems to be a promising opportunity to strengthen the design thinking process. This means to implement feedback testing and iteration loops earlier in the process, even before there is a prototype. This could happen for example after the Point of View or after Ideation. The testing of early problem hypotheses, that can be falsified or validated, might save time and resources, and could result in a better output of successful project results.

Moreover, it is suggested to implement metric-based evaluation techniques as they are commonly used in lean startup. For example, testing in design thinking is mostly performed qualitatively in the analyzed literature. Therefore, checklists or specific test environments that allow for quantitative measuring of user feedback (such as landing page design, smoketest, etc.) should be implemented in the design thinking process. Also, it is suggested to develop a business model in addition to the prototype, to validate the viability of the concept.

Potential to improve Lean Startup

Unlike design thinking, lean startup does not describe specifically how customer input could be collected. Qualitative research methods – e.g. ethnographic methods – could be applied to improve the definition of the targeted customers and to identify their needs and problems. Similarly, we suggest adapting the synthesis methods from design thinking. Structured frameworks or the generation of a qualitative persona might help lean startup to better understand and develop their customers and their respective needs and problems.

Both should be scheduled at the beginning of the process. Lean startup could also benefit from the use of ideation techniques, as they are applied in design thinking, to develop concept variations. Although lean startup usually starts with a concrete business idea, it might be helpful to use structured ideation methods to iterate that idea within the process, specifically before the problem-solution fit is achieved. Consequently, pivoting should be applied earlier (already on the initial concept). And finally, qualitative feedback evaluation, such as qualitative user interviews, could be implemented in the pivoting steps, in addition to the metric-based evaluation techniques. »

Roland Mueller and Katja Thoring call the process “Lean Design Thinking” and integrates the most promising features of both approaches. I think that it’s framework can be very useful for explore innovation opportunities.


Katja Thoring made also a Prezi Presentation on the subject presented here.

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