I work in an organisation where LEAN is the chosen approach to designing and improving services. I'm on a crusade to employ a more 'service design' approach, but keep getting asked where LEAN sits within this approach?


My question is, can LEAN enhance or contribute to 'service design'? 

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Hi Nick,

LEAN can indeed fit within service design. However, as a consultant practitioner I have found it more often used to improve existing processes, rather than design new ones. But this doesn't mean that it can't be. The principles of LEAN e.g. natural grouping; elimination of waste; etc; are good for any service design, and LEAN teams are good examples of collaborative co-design. But I find that the application of them is often logical / rational and internally focused, usually fitting into business process re-engineering approaches and performance improvement methodologies like Kaizen and Six-Sigma. In my experience LEAN practitioners could benefit from concentrating more on the discovery phase, and seek greater insight and examples externally in different sectors and across the globe.

Hope this is useful - contact me if you want to know more....

James Rock

Hi Nick

Are you sure you are asking the right question? Let me explain.

In a previous life I was Head of CRM for Toyota Financial Services in Germany. I was taught and used Toyota's approach to lean, to improve all aspects of Toyota's and its dealers' customer-facing business. Toyota doesn't see lean as a collection of tools (unlike many so-called lean experts), but rather as an organisational philosophy to engage the whole organisation in creating more value together with customers. Toyota's approach to lean is much closer to design thinking than you may think.

Womack & Jones in their earlier 'Lean Thinking' book describe five core principles that apply to lean:

  1. Specify value from the standpoint of the customer
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream, eliminating whenever possible those steps that do not create value
  3. Make the value-creating steps occur in tight sequence so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer
  4. As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity
  5. As value is specified, value streams are identified, wasted steps are removed, and flow and pull are introduced, begin the process again and continue it until a state of perfection is reached in which perfect value is created with no waste.

Womack & Jones expanded upon these five principles in their later 'Lean Solutions' book:

  1. Solve the customer's problem completely 
  2. Don't waste the customer's time 
  3. Provide exactly what the customer wants
  4. Deliver value where the customer wants it 
  5. Supply value when the customer wants it 
  6. Reduce the number of decisions the customer must make to solve my problems.

At its heart, lean is all about providing the most efficient ways for customers to create value with the company; how they want it, when they want it and where they want it. And about continuously improving how much value can be created. What Lexus calls 'the pursuit of perfection'. These could be design principles for almost any service design project.

The key to integrating lean and service design is to focus on where they complement each other. For example, the Toyota project planning process identifies stretch targets for a piece of work before the best way to achieve them is identified and developed. The more stretching the targets, the more innovative the required solution to meet them must be. It doesn't take much imagination to see how the service design approach of iterative prototyping with customers could be used to provide better solutions to stretch targets. In a way, Toyota already does this. New services intruduced are continuously reviewed by Toyota, its dealers and selected customers to look for improvement opportunities. Some integrated marketing campaigns my team introduced (involving marketing, sales, customer service, finance, the field force, dealer and customer activities) were improved over 50 times in their first year of operation. A case of continuous iterative prototyping. And this isn't an isolated case. There are many other places where the service design approach complements lean thinking and vice versa. 

It isn't a case of lean enhancing or contributing to service design, but taking the best of both worlds and combining them together. Lean doesn't have all the answers to service design. It has a powerful framework that looks at EFFICIENTLY creating value for customers. And perhaps surprisingly, service design doesn't have all the answers to service design either. It has an equally powerful framework that looks at EFFECTIVELY creating value for customers.

Like many things in life, you shouldn't be asking whether you should use EITHER lean OR service design, you should be asking how you can combine the best of lean AND service design. 

Contact me on graham(dot)hill(at)web(dot)de if you need more information on combining lean and service design.

Graham Hill
Customer-centric Innovator


Further Reading:

Womack & Jones

Lean Consumption (HBR)



Great Commenting Graham.
Graham, thanks for taking the time to supply such a complete answer. Much appreciated!

Hey Nick.  Thanks for posing this question.


I've always heard it said about LEAN vs Design Thinking (DT)*, that LEAN is about doing things right; DT is about doing the right things.


Personally, I agree with this cliche and therefore think LEAN and DT can be very complimentary approaches to solving problems and innovating.


I emphasise "can", because I think so much depends on the underlying philosophy and personality of the organisation applying the approaches (and how the approaches are applied).  For example an analytical, cautious and internally-focused organisation is likely pretty poorly served by DT but quite successful with LEAN (I guess I share James Rock's observation that LEAN in practice seems often to mean "internally focused").  On the other hand a customer-focused, experimental and creative company might find LEAN a bad fit, and be better off with DT.  


If the organisation has philosophy and character that balances customer/internal, creative/analytical etc. then they may be able to use LEAN and DT together well.  


However, just to try something out, I want to test out the idea that DT ought to be the methodology of choice for an organisation wanting to do the right things and do things right.  My hypothesis is that DT has full coverage of the innovation spectrum (incremental - transformational) whereas LEAN is confined only to incremental innovation.  


To me DT seems it might have all the features of LEAN (systems view, customer focus, analytical investigation...) and more, eg. rapid and iterative prototyping, abductive logic and synthesis, that make it better** than LEAN for all kinds of innovation. Interested to hear your thoughts on this...  


*I've supplemented DT for service design, thinking that service design is simply the application of DT to service innovation.

**My working definition of "better" = creating more value for customer and business.

Hi Matt


Totally agree with your point regarding “so much depends on the underlying philosophy and personality of the organisation”, as I’m sure that LEAN can be employed successfully in the right instance.


I have very little hands on experience of LEAN, so I may be opening myself up for a fall here. My only issue with LEAN is that it focuses on improving an existing process; the idea that the existing process was never fit for purpose is not addressed. Also the main focus is on creating value for the customer, which I’m all for. However, there is no real consideration for enhancing user experience pre and post service which if employed could even introduce additional cost and spend, a big no, no with LEAN.


I also agree that DT has all the features of LEAN and more. The most important factor for me is that there are no restrictions of a prescribed methodology with DT. Its adaptive to fit many differing projects and disciplines.


I also think that it’s quite difficult to manage projects with two different methodologies, users from the different approaches often provide very different inputs and expect very different outputs. Expectations get very hard to manage.


I appreciate that DT is adaptable enough to accommodate LEAN in certain respects, but does it need to?


My answer would be that the cons of including LEAN out way the pros.


I’m going to keep DT LEAN!


Nick, I'd be very interested to hear how you get on in your "crusade" :) - your challenges and successes, ideas and insights.  Will you keep us posted?

Hi Nick

As you said yourself, "I have very little hands on experience of Lean, so I may be opening myself up for a fall". Hmmm! You seem to have a confused picture of what lean is and how it works. Let me help shed a litle light on what lean is and what it can do. 

At its heart, lean is a framework, a box of tools and an implementation model, not a rigid methodology. These can be adapted and used for many different purposes, from continuous improvement (which you hint at), through radical improvement (which you don't), all the way to new product & service design.

The key to lean is in the 5+5 principles I set out in an earlier post. These revolve around creating value for the customer in whatever way they desire. A leading implementor of lean, like Toyota, would look at different types of value, e.g. functional, emotional, relational and social, created at different touchpoints throughout the customer journey. Including the critical pre-purchase phase when expectations are set and the post-purchase consumption phase when those expectations are met, or not as the case may be. Toyota looks at value creation in this way over the entire lifetime of the customer and the vehicle; from before a new vehicle is purchased by its first owner all the way to the vehicle having its second or third owner. A customer journey lasting up to 15 years. Improvements are prototyped in Dojos around the world, often in live dealerships, where continuous and step-changes in creating value for customers are tested with real customers. 

Lean also looks at what each other actor values over their journey too. But there the focus is often on avoiding waste during teh creation of value, not on reducing costs as is often wrongly assumed. 

If you talked to a leading practitioner of lean you would find that its framework, tools and model have much in common with Design Thinking. But you have to be willing to look. Perhaps I am mistaken but I read from your post that you are not all that willing to look. You have already written off lean without even bothering to do your due diligence.

This is not the design thinking that I am used to applying on client projects. And I suspect it isn't the design thinking your clients expect either.

Graham Hill
Customer-centric Innovator

Thanks for taking the time to provide such a well structured and informative response, it's much appreciated.

I find it funny that a methodology that embraces pull and looking from the eyes of the customer could find itself at odds with Design Thinking and Service Design. In fact, I personally see little difference when using the approach recommended by Graham Hill of EDCA, PDCA and SDCA. Graham's other comments are spot on.


The problem that to get Lean people outside of the 4 walls of the enterprise and going to Gemba. The real Gemba where you product is being used. I get in discussions all the time with Lean people that tell me Sales and Marketing responsibility is to level demand and sustain flow in the factory. I reply that there is little customer value and pull in that statement.  However, I think Lean looked at as Graham mentions is the correct way and is very compatible to Design Thinking and Service Design.


I think where a lot of Lean people have problems applying Lean outside of the traditional waste thoughts is that they do not look at PDCA  as a knowledge building activity. If they come to realize that outside of manufacturing that we are not closing performance gaps but rather knowledge gaps it is much easier understood. Still resisted, but easier understood.Convincing them that sharing and creating knowledge with the customer is the strongest marketing tool there is and Lean provides a vehicle not only to do that in sales and marketing but with the rest of the company.








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