Building, Testing, and Learning to Boost Impact and Innovation.
What is Lean?
It is very probable that if you’re savvy in the startup world you’ve heard about “Lean”, or Eric Ries’s book ˝The Lean Startup”. It is not a new hype or trendy word that’s going to be soon forgotten, actually it’s a concept that has been around for quite some time, since the early 20th century!
The core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply put, Lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources, which to any entrepreneur is a godsend.
Why is it relevant?
B Corps and social enterprises, like any traditional business, face the same “fast paced world” challenges with the additional pressure of creating positive social and environmental impact, and let’s not forget profitability! This makes Lean an ideal methodology for any social entrepreneur and B Corp because of it’s intense focus on efficiency and results.
If a business is determined to solve the world’s toughest problems, imagine the benefit of knowing –almost instantly– whether or not the actions and steps being taken to change the world are working.
So, how does it work? The Lean approach relies on validating learnings, experimenting in real life situations, and finally iterating the offering. This translates into shortening product development cycles, measuring progress, and gaining insightful customer feedback.
Tailoring Lean to B Corps
Nowadays implementing Lean is easier than ever before because of (you guessed it) technology! The Lean Methodology is designed bottom up, to find the fastest and most efficient way of reaching the business’s goal: meeting the need or solving the problem.
Failing fast and focusing on the user
Different to what may be the first step to take when starting or managing a B Corp, planning, Lean states as one of its principles to primarily fail as fast as possible. This may sound like a negative step of the process and a result of the lack of planning, but it is actually the sturdiest way to know if the idea is truly going to have the expected impact. Testing is the first step that will in the end make you move closer to your desired outcome.
Jane Chen, founder of Embrace, a social enterprise that came up with an innovative way to solve the increasing death rate of premature babies in developing countries, got to her desired outcome by “getting out of the building” and testing with her real users. Chen traveled to Africa with what she thought would be a good solution, and it wasn’t until she started testing that she realized it wasn’t the answer to the problem. The initial prototype required both energy and separating the mothers from their babies. Both of these were big obstacles, first because of the lack of electricity in households and second, because of the feeling of guilt the mothers suffered from when having to leave their babies in the incubator. After failing, Chen continued with more testing, gathering vital insights that took her to create an incubator that solved the pressing problem in a simple yet much more impactful way: The Embrace Care which can be used in homes or hospitals. It workes without electricity, and is intuitive enough to be used by a healthcare worker or a mother, while costing less than 1% of a traditional incubator.
This first testing phase focusing on customer development guides B Corps to where the most pressing issues really are. Moving to the second Lean principle, we debunk the traditional “plan – gather funding – do” approach.
In its place focusing on having agile development as a backbone, which means to “build – measure – learn” instead. This is the moment to put into practice the data gathered during the first failing and user development phase.
Agile focuses very much on speed, to give you an idea of how fast is fast when it comes to agile, software companies may launch dozens of versions of a MVP (minimum viable product) everyday.
However magical Lean may seam, B Corps live in a much more risky environment than traditional businesses due to all the factors they take into consideration, in addition to being profitable. You are probably thinking: how much does it cost to build prototypes, measure results and learn, just to start the whole process again? This is when the third principle comes into play: efficiency.
Efficiency means making an MVP work to solve the issue the B Corp’s is looking to solve. Being realistic, tight budgets and restrictions take a toll on most social enterprises, which is why efficiency needs to be a key principle to move the business towards their purpose.
When time works against this purpose, efficiency makes it easier to keep stakeholders in the loop on why you’re making the decisions you are. Knowing where there is waste to be removed and hidden potential to be boosted is being efficient, which is vital to any social enterprise.
In short, the Lean Methodology has the potential to accelerate the impact and change that B Corps are looking for in a simple, fast and efficient way.
Going back to the core idea of Lean: creating more value for customers with fewer resources, boosts the purpose and impact a B Corp can have in ways that a traditional elaborate and unproved plan fails to: the Lean Methodology can help social enterprises meet the pressing demand of solving the world’s toughest problems.
Sources and additional information
“The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good” Ryan Honeyman, 2014
“Lean Startups for Social Change” Michel Gelobter, 2015.
“Lean Startup Techniques for Social Change Companies“. B The Change Media.
About Our Collaborator Series
Written by external collaborators, the opinions expressed in this series of articles are the author’s own and do not reflect the official view of Emzingo or Emzingo-U.
Elvira is a Customer Experience and Innovation professional with experience in consulting and social responsibility, constantly looking for experiences that foster new challenges and contribute to her passion on issues related to sustainability, social impact and innovation.