Lean Software Development Teams: The Key To Successful Digital Products


The terms of product development has always been at the mercy of the consumer climate, societal influence, and technological status of the time. For example, cars weren’t always a common commodity, and for much of human history people relied on wagons and horses to transport goods. Then trains were invented, which allowed large-scale movement. Projects could be completed at grander scales and faster.

Any upheaval in traditional business practices can be attributed to an associated innovation in technology. The cotton gin and coal-power lead the way of the Industrial Revolution, modern vehicles closed the gaps between distant locations for the common man, and the internet provides instantaneous communication across the globe. Adaptation is, as it is humanity’s greatest strength, the lynchpin in making this system work.

Within relatively recent history, starting around the 70’s, large organizations became employing the “Waterfall” development process to map out the creation process for a new product. It’s straightforward and structured method, involving sequential steps from A-Z in bringing a product to market: requirements, design, implementation, verification, and maintenance. 

The issue with the Waterfall approach is that it’s inflexible. When the Internet became a global commodity, software development developed “Agile” as a new approach. When companies were no longer able to predict and accurately meet what the people needed, they realized their development process needed to become more flexible. The Agile development process relies on massive product feedback from customers and a series of iterative updates to projects in order to continually and frequently address the most important issues in a project or product.

The turn of the century, like tradition, gave rise to Design Thinking, which like its predecessors was intended to learn from its predecessors to adequately address an expanding audience. In this case, it’s a human-centered approach. Unlike previous iterations, Design Thinking places the customer as its center, seeking to identify and synthesize a product catering to customers through creative thinking and behavior analysis.

The point we’re making is that the development processes can lose their viability in a shifting market and even become obsolete. However, every new development process learns from the past while seemingly becoming more and more human-centric. Within this past decade, a new process was developed, intended to integrate the full potential of the Internet while drawing on the experiences and feedback of the customer base.

This method is known as the Lean software development methodology, and we’re hoping we can tell you a little bit about how it works.


What Is Lean Software Development?

The lean methodology is founded on a “trial-and-error” cycle, and it’s often identified by its core philosophy: “fail early to succeed sooner.” Innovation is the bread and butter in the realm of digital products. In order to facilitate greater and more efficient innovation, you must also be willing to stomach the taste of failure. 

Making an effort and coming up short is a bitter but necessary pill to swallow for driving creative breakthrough improvement. By committing your production process to early experimentation based off heavy user feedback, your frequent failed attempts pave the way to one goal: understanding what your customer base wants. The more assumptions you have, the more failures you wade through, the sooner you arrive at developing a successful product for your customers before creating the final product.

While this method was popularized in Eric Ries’ 2011 book “The Lean Startup”, its roots originate from the Toyota Production System in manufacturing. Developed between 1948 and 1975, the system is designed to eliminate overburdening, inconsistency, and waste. This process of removing unwanted elements from the development process caters to continual adaptation of a changing environment. By removing the unnecessary, you’re able to focus on the integral operational aspects.

The Lean methodology itself, while rooted in a decades-old manufacturing system, saw its first applications outside of manufacturing in software development. Lean can credit much of its practices to mindsets and techniques originally deployed by Agile, which in of itself is a Lean development methodology for optimizing the software development cycle.

It’s important to note that there are two pillars that promote the flow of value to the customer within the Lean system: continuous improvement and respect for people. Abiding by the foundation these two rules set, Lean is capable of carrying out and fulfilling a successful rate of development.


Traditional development vs Lean development


Continuous Improvement

Refusal to adapt has led over half of Fortune 500 companies to go bankrupt within the last 15 years. Modern systems cannot afford to remain stagnant and expect to maintain a relevant, successful position in the rat race. Newer methodologies are embracing this and recognizing that there needs to be continuous, consistent improvement in the way projects are developed.

Lean expertly integrates this premise through its “fail to succeed” philosophy, like we mentioned previously. Chances are you’ve heard the same or a similar sentiment before. There’s nothing to be gained in success, but everything to learn in failure. People are best educated when they come up short, and by analyzing and learning from what went wrong they can improve on that in the future.


Respect for People/Teams

Product development needs to be human-centric. Creating a disconnect from the product and the audience you’re selling it to can’t be effectively applied to the digital market. However, this idea of respect doesn’t just extend to your target audience, it also involves the teams and employees in charge of the projects themselves.

People are smart, creative, and resourceful. Lean banks on the concept that, when allowed to voice their opinions and ideas, the generation of fresh, innovative technologies, services, and solutions is greatly accelerated. Facilitating this type of creative consciousness requires that people need to be respected for their work, whether they work for the organization or are a paying patron.

New design philosophies are, in many ways, are a series of personalized mechanics. Software development teams and individual engineers are not mindless drones paid to slave away at the workstation, and customers are not a hungry rabble that are expected to take what they’re given. Customers inform you of what needs to be done, and software engineers are the skilled individuals capable of bringing that vision to light.

Lean development teams are indicative of this “New Way” by combining the principles of Design Thinking while always validating ideas and products to get them to market faster. Once your product is in the market, you can expect to see greater profitability in the long game. Every project, every failure, and every new idea contributes to the whole as a part of a renewable cycle, not as a one-off concept. Lean creates reusable knowledge that can be used in future iterations of a product.

Essentially, you’re capitalizing on learned knowledge and using it to expand your skills and parameters in the field. Recycling: good for the planet and for digital products.


What Are the Principles of Lean Software Development Teams?

We touched a little bit on the preceding roots of Lean software development - if you recall, we talked a bit about the Toyota Production System - but we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about the actual guiding principles for building a successful software development team. Let’s go ahead and do that now.

Eliminate Waste

Like with the TPS, eliminating waste is a central part of an efficient system. Think of it as you’re trimming the fat: if the user has no need for a function within an app, then there is no need to have that function. Everything within a digital product needs to have value. The ideal is an efficient, wasteless service that handles the most important, useful aspects of an app and nothing more.

Amplify Learning

The more you experiment, the more you learn. Lean product development is about seeing what does and does not work, while sating your curiosity about whether you can’t improve an aspect of the product. Experimentation and failure are encouraged, and through this process the software development teams can improve and learn.

Decide as Late as Possible

Keep nothing set in stone until it’s the last item on the docket. As soon as you make an irreversible decision, it becomes that much harder to correct past mistakes or make new changes around that choice. The state of a Lean development team means that everything can be altered when needed. Only make a final decision when you have as much information as you can possibly need to decide. Permanence is an obstacle.

Deliver as Fast as Possible

In every case presented to a Lean team, speed trumps quality in every instance. This ties into learning from your failures and receiving feedback from the target audience. The more frequently you can turnaround a product, the more information you’ll receive in order to make the product better. Releasing an imperfect product is acceptable as long as you’re receptive and act on the customers’ response.

Empower the Team

This concept requires having a fair bit of confidence in your software development teams. As they continue to work on a product, developing multiple iterations and constantly making adjustments, it’s inevitable that they’re going to outpace external authority. One way or another, that team is going to become the de facto expert for handling this product, making any outside interference more trouble than assistance. They know what they’re doing.

Build Integrity In

Everything involved in a Lean project must have intention and relevance. Extra software programs that don’t contribute to the efficiency and capability of a project must be removed. Building in integrity ensures that all software being utilized will have a purpose, meaning they must be useful, used, and right for the work.

See the Whole

Lean software cannot afford to be a small picture venture - you’re only going to wind up with local optimizations that way. Changing your perspective to envision the whole scope of where your project is going, who it’s going to affect, how it can reach a wider audience, and so on, ensures you won’t drive your projects into a niche market. Thinking needs to be long-term, not short-term.


What Are the Benefits of Lean Software Development Teams?

Utilizing the Lean software development method will impact more than how effectively your teams will handle incoming and outgoing projects. From a business standpoint, you’re going to see an increase in productivity, profit, and cost-efficiency as a result from the combination of principles and work practice championed by this methodology.

They Generate Innovative Solutions

As always, innovations is the culprit of advancement. A Lean software development team is going to put more time, energy, and effort into the production of a single project than anyone else outside the sphere of productivity could hope to match. Through this system of experimentation, failure, and tweaking, the environment naturally generates familiarity, which in turn begets innovation. Not only does this look good for your company, it naturally draws new audiences to your business.

They Lower the Costs of Development

One of the main principles behind a successful Lean software development team is recycling. Learning from what has made their projects successful, efficient, and capable of generating good responses from clientele and customers alike means you won’t be forced to funnel excessive funds into every project to find new solutions. You’ve created a powerhouse team that’s proven to be a creative, innovative band of individuals, cutting the costs of development vis-a-vis eliminating waste.

They Shorten the Development Cycles

We, again, harken back to the fact that you’re going to have the same team pumping out projects as quickly as they can to meet turnaround. Shortening development cycles means that you’ll be able to repurpose your valuable software engineers, once they’ve shot out a new iteration of a product to receive feedback, to new projects. Shorter development cycles means faster turnaround and more projects that can be handled simultaneously.

They Reduce Redevelopment of the Product

If you have to assign a brand new team to fix a clunker after it’s been sent back, you’re being a bit inefficient with how you budget your teams. The Lean methodology is all about creating experts dedicated to working on a project with minimal alteration to the team composition. Redevelopment is a costly, time-consuming hassle. Since your projects are constantly in a flux of development, able to be easily addressed and updated, you get to avoid that particular thorn in your side.



Finding the right methodology for getting the best work done has always been based on a series of changing work practices and mindsets. For the time being, the last 30 years or so have taught us that the best way to deliver a product that people like is to, first and foremost, listen to what they have to say. A human-centric mindset is the crux of a good digital product, with the Lean methodology only being the most recent iteration.

Through continuous improvement, respect for people, and continuously experimenting, failing, and trying again, the Lean development cycle is the current best answer to the Internet landscape. Speed is better than quality, because you can always fix what you missed, and being receptive to your audience helps your teams generate new, innovative ideas to help propel your company forward.


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