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Jon Miller

Quality Insider

What Culture Supports a Lean Startup Approach?

It depends. Are they adaptive or nonadaptive?

Published: Friday, November 22, 2013 - 10:56

Today I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit in on a webinar titled “Bringing Lean to Established Companies” by lean startup gurus Eric Ries, Brant Cooper, and Patrick Vlaskovits. The webinar was not about bringing lean per se but rather the lean startup approach to established companies.

By “established companies” the speakers meant non-startups, which include organizations that may or may not have begun practicing lean within their organizations, and may or may not be succeeding with lean. The speakers based their information on their experience with Fortune 100 companies.

There were more than 600 participants from around the world, many good questions, and too little time to answer them. The organizers promised to post the webinar audio on their website and answer additional questions through their blog.

Although I am paraphrasing from memory and the curious reader is encouraged to check the audio of the webinar, one of the questions was, “What type of culture supports a lean startup culture?” The answer was a combination of “no cultures are a natural fit” and “any/all cultures can adopt lean startup practice.”

Ries commented that cultural artifacts are the result of the processes in an organization; that in established companies, these behaviors and practices limited risk-taking and experimentation in favor of making the numbers, and this needed to change for lean startup to thrive.

Cooper commented on the fact that this type of culture change happens as people experience success with a lean startup and create belief in new ways of working. Mike Wroblewski, Jaime Villafuerte, and myself make largely the same point, somewhat more at length, in our new book, Creating a Kaizen Culture (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013).

Another answer to the question, “What culture supports a lean startup?” could have simply been “adaptive cultures.” Proposed as a result of a study of 207 companies by Kotter and Heskett, the companies they characterized as “adaptive” outperform the “nonadaptive” ones by four times in revenue growth,  and more than 700 percent in profit growth. The beliefs and behaviors of adaptive cultures include:
• Having an outward focus, humility, and curiosity
• Leaders and managers caring deeply about all stakeholders
• Valuing changes as opportunities
• Encouraging broad and deep leadership and initiative
• Taking intelligent risks


In contrast, nonadaptive organizational cultures exhibit the following behaviors:
• Being inward-looking, arrogant, and political
• Caring mainly about themselves, their projects, products, or cliques
• De-valuing changes or seeing them as threats
• Being bureaucratic and regimented
• Avoiding risk and setting policies to limit experimentation and initiative


Academics, authors, consultants, and business leaders have been tackling the question of organizational culture and its effect on long-term success in various ways for decades. Only recently have people begun to find practical, day-to-day ways to bring about culture change while also getting the work done and delivering results. Implemented properly, rather than as a shiny new tool set to be focused on within specific organizational silos, kaizen, insofar as it leads to lean, does this.

Organizations, regardless of their place in the life cycle of a business, from startup to established company, are all collections of people who have beliefs, feelings, needs, and behaviors. As a result, from a cultural and behavioral point of view, they end up looking quite similar regardless of country, product, technologies used, or demographic makeup of the organization.

Business is a human endeavor, and the changing of organizational culture even more so. The lean startup approach can be an excellent catalyst to help early-stage companies start off in building adaptive cultures, and help established companies shift toward more adaptive cultures.

First published Oct. 8, 2013, on gemba panta rei blog.


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.