Introducing Lean Production Scale-Up

Lean Production Scale-Up is a four-step model designed for companies operating in untested markets with untested technology. The purpose of the model is the reduce the high capital risk that is associated especially with companies using new technology and innovations. The model enables the company to make its technology investments as soon as possible time-wise, but as late as possible in the learning curve.

I developed the model based on my experiences in production development in various startup companies both in the medical and food industries.

While the Lean Startup movement serves many types of startups, there is one aspect that has not been included in the broader public discussion. Lean Startup concentrates on finding the market fit for the untested product or service as efficiently as possible but assumes that the same level of uncertainty does not exist in the internal operations of the company. Companies like Spotify, Dropbox, and Facebook, had critical and untested assumptions regarding their business models when they started, but they did not need to doubt if the product was doable technically once market fit was confirmed.

The situation is critically different for companies that are involved in a business where the product or the production process is involving an innovation. Industries like 3D printing and food grown in bioreactors are operating in untested markets, but they are also working with unproven technology.

Build- Measure- Learn Double Loop.

Lean Startup focuses on optimizing learning by using the Build-Measure-Learn loop. For companies also having internal unknowns, a second loop is needed that is for the production process.

An Information Technology or service company must look into improving their working process for improvement as well, but in most cases, a software company is using existing coding languages, software, and hardware. When working with building new physical products with new machines and machine setups, new raw materials and so on the need for internal learning and improving the working process in the company is multiplied. Together, the two Build-Measure-Learn Loops form the Build-Measure-Learn Double Loop.

double loop

Figure 1: Build-Measure-Learn Double Loop

Lean Production Scale-Up Model

By using this model, a company with new innovation can navigate its way from an idea to full-scale production. Alternatively, in the case that innovation or the business model using it does not add value to customers or is not technically feasible, the company can identify this as soon as possible.

The Lean Production Scale-Up model consists of four steps. The model is divided into these exact four questions to maximize the efficiency of the scale-up process. Each step asks the question that the company must answer by using the Build-Measure-Learn Double Loop. The questions are answered one-by-one in the specific order.

The primary goal of the early production when working with innovation is not to generate profit for the company, and it is not to have a positive gross margin, but to reach the learning goals of each step and taking those steps as fast as possible. If you do something else than what is necessary at that step at hand, you increase your expenditure, risks, and what is worst you slow down learning and business assumption validation.

  • Step 1: Is there a demand? The question is quite similar to step 2, but asking first is there any demand at all, key assumptions can be invalidated without the need of financial commitments to production space and machinery that must be in place in step 2.
  • Step 2: Is the demand sustainable and scalable? After confirming that there is some interest comes the time to validate that the demand is not limited to too small customer segments and that the customers will turn into returning customers and advocates. Some investments are now needed, but only the ones that are necessary to collect the learnings are taken. All development ideas related to improving production efficiency are postponed.
  • Step 3: Is positive gross margin achievable? Once demand and market fit are clear, its time to confirm not only that the product can be produced on an industrial scale, but also that it can be done with a positive gross margin. At this stage when still operating with suboptimal machinery (the quick & dirty solution you have put in place so far) actually having positive gross margin is difficult, but you can collect evidence that positive gross margin can be reached. For example, changing too small warehouse to a larger one and investing in an automated packing line will improve your operational costs significantly.
  • Step 4: Continuous development. The company acquires the full-scale profit-generating production line. Learning is still essential for the young company, but the learning curve starts to slow down, and development starts to resemble established company: The development in the production process is now numerous small steps, while in the previous steps it was mostly fewer, but substantial steps. At this stage, the Lean Production Scale-Up has run its course and hands the control over to Lean Management that is specialized in continuous development.

By following the four-step model, a company with new physical innovation can navigate its way from an idea to full-scale production. Alternatively, in the case that innovation or the business model using it does not add value to customers or is not technically feasible, the company can identify this as soon as possible.

A major part of the financial risk involved in the production scale-up is associated with the relatively large upfront investments. Setting up a workshop, let alone a laboratory requires a set of tools and machines. Acquiring suitable working space and required tools is intensive investment wise. Making these investments as soon as possible time-wise, but as late as possible in the learning curve is the goal of Lean Production Scale-Up.

Avoid outsourcing

What happens throughout the Lean Production Scale-Up model is a lot of learning in two equally important sectors: From the market and customers’ needs (the market build-measure-learn loop), but also about the production process (the production build-measure-learn loop). It is tempting to outsource production or parts of it to speed up the development and reduce the need for capital investment. Subcontracting can indeed offer very tangible and tempting benefits: Facilities and supply chains are ready, no need for upfront investments or hiring production operators to name a few but looking for these benefits are not the purpose of the early stage production. If production is done by a subcontractor at an early stage, the learning will happen at the subcontractor, not internally at the company. All work must focus on optimizing the learning process that can be best achieved when the production is done in-house. When using a subcontractor in the early stages of development, the company will also find it difficult to continue to the later stages of scale-up because the subcontracting partners hold the tacit knowledge and thus the negotiation power in the developing partnership.

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Here you got a glance at what my Lean Production Scale-Up- book project is about! The idea is still fresh is only now starting to take shape. So far I have some 30 pages about the topic going more in detail how the four steps would look like in practice and what are the dos and don’ts for the starting company that is operating in the untested market with untested technology.

Edit: Second part of introducing the model can be found here: Do Not Outsource! But If You Do, Remember These 3 Things

Would you like to read more on the topic? Any feedback on this blog post? Please get in touch by email or twitter!

Your friend, Ilkka Taponen

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