Is There a Lean Approach to Marketing?

Is lean agile? Is agile fundamentally lean? Can (and should) you be both?

Does any of that really matter?

Ever since I saw research indicating that most marketers who call themselves agile have adopted a lean approach, I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions.

By diving deeper into the history of the lean approach — from its origins as a speed-driven automation machine through its more current incarnation as a waste-reduction engine — I’m hoping we can untangle the relationship between lean and agile marketing.

In the end, our goal here is to figure out what marketers can steal appropriate that will help them do their jobs better.

My #1 lean lesson: You don’t have to be 100% lean, 100% agile, or 100% anything as long as you’re making constant improvement a priority.

What It Means to Be Lean

Stated most simply, lean is about identifying and eliminating sources of waste. Less waste leads to better quality and lower costs, resulting in better business results overall.

Derived from the Japanese manufacturing industry in general, and Toyota’s approaches in particular, lean principles center on systematically removing three primary types of waste: non-value-adding work (muda), overburden (muri), and unevenness (mura).

There is often a focus on keeping work simple to understand, do, and manage, along with the need for the employees completing the work to embrace waste reduction tools and appreciate the value of being lean.

In its ultimate form, a lean organization gets the right things to the right place at the right time and in the right quality to achieve perfect workflow, while minimizing waste and being flexible and able to change.

Sure, that sounds easy. We’ll all get right on that.

Is this something anybody has managed to get right? Historically, yes.

The History of Lean-ness

Although most marketing references to the “lean” approach are based on Eric Ries’ 2011 bestseller, The Lean Startup, the historical roots of reducing waste staying lean go back much further.

Some believe that the term first appeared in a 1988 article called, “Triumph of the Lean Production System” by MIT student John Krafcik.

Other sources cite Dr. Jim Womack as the originator of lean principles during his time in MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program. He’s since authored the book, “Lean Thinking.”

In 2011 Ries identified an interesting intersection and advocated starting businesses based on lean principles.

He offers five principles of the Lean Startup:

  1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere. Startups are really just, “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
  2. Entrepreneurship is management. “A startup is an institution, not just a product, and so it requires a new kind of management specifically geared to its context of extreme uncertainty.”
  3. Validated learning. Startups exist “to learn how to build a sustainable business.” They do this best by running continuous experiments.
  4. Build-Measure-Learn. There are three fundamental activities in which startups should be engaged: build products, see how customers respond to them, and learn whether to persevere with those products or pivot to something else.
  5. Innovation accounting. The “boring stuff,” like measuring progress, establishing milestones, and prioritizing work, is crucial for startups.

Since its publication, The Lean Startup has inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of startups and launched an entire business management movement.

Why Lean Marketing

Ok, so this has worked for manufacturing and startups in the past. Why should marketers care about it in the digital era?

To put it simply, a lean approach can help reduce risk while encouraging experimentation and autonomy. It encourages a shift in how we optimize marketing as a whole by urging us to think at an organizational level:

Instead of focusing on optimizing single processes or technologies, you examine your entire organization as a flow to your customers and prospects. Instead of putting energy and resources towards using WordPress better, you examine whether you’re communicating sufficiently well with the sales team to generate qualified leads, and how your technology plays into that process.

Lean marketing also calls for releasing MVPs often, collecting feedback on their performance, and making changes based on that data.

Content marketing is an oft-cited example of lean marketing. It’s easy to release an ebook, see how it performs, and then decide to iterate on it, abandon the project, or try a different ebook altogether.

lean content marketing

Experts Weigh in on Lean Marketing

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s poll some experts:

Lean content marketing is about measuring the impact of content and refining it, rather than just flopping around,” – Arabella Santiago, Director of Marketing and Communications at Scoop.it

“The ability to be flexible and iterate allows marketers to tweak the focus until they hit the sweet spot” – Gina Rau, Marketing and Brand Strategist

“In terms of timing, the effectiveness of a campaign can be measured within the first few days. While this approach may seem premature, the first 10 to 15 percent of the audience is usually a good bellweather for the general market you are going to reach. If it is resonating with that initial crowd, we’ve found that it will be successful with the general population. If not, the effort should be quickly abandoned.” – Greg Stallkamp, CEO of Lakeshore Express

“Planning in business is so ’90s. Have a goal, yes. Develop the means, yes. Then stay in the moment and do what you’ve planned for the day or a week, tops. Like in [a] battle, the plan goes kaput when the first shot is fired.” – Dmitri Eroshenko, founder and CEO of Relenta

You Say “Lean,” I say “Agile”…

So…my vote is that we skip the big philosophical debate about what to call the systems that can most effectively guide marketing teams into a digital, audience-driven future.

Agile marketing and lean startups are both grandchildren (great-grandchildren?) of the manufacturing ideas from previous decades. They share ancestry, aims, and have many of the same approaches. There’s no need for us to bicker over language.

This Hubspot article, for example, is titled, “Lean Marketing: How to Run Your Marketing Team Like a Startup.” But its final suggestions for how to run your marketing team like a lean startup include:

  • Organize Around the Sprint
  • Structure Your Scrum Teams
  • Create User Stories
  • Commit to a Daily Standup

While all of these are great things to do, and will almost certainly make your marketing team run more smoothly, strictly speaking they’re more closely aligned with the Scrum methodology than the lean approach.

But let’s be frank: who cares?

Really, it doesn’t matter what book you like best. It doesn’t matter if you use the 12 step lean process religiously or swear by your Kanban board.

Agility by Any Other Name Works Just As Well

The important thing is that we get ourselves out of traditional mindsets that will not serve us, our teams, or our audiences in the future (which, let’s face it, is pretty much the present). We need to adapt in real time, figure out how to meet audience expectations without working all the time, and improve alignment with ever-changing business goals.

You and your team may call this “lean” while I call my process “agile.” In reality, it’s the difference between tomayto and tomahto. We can agree to disagree on terminology.

Hopefully we’re far too busy doing amazing marketing to argue anyway.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.




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