The power of small batches

Please allow me to start this post with a recommendation…everyone* should read The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries (*NOTE: by “everyone” I am only referring to those who want to become smarter, more creative, be inspired and have your mind blown).

With the recommendation out of the way, I can now post the blog equivalent of a retweet from chapter 9 of Eric’s fabulous book.

Think of the simple exercise of stuffing envelopes. I do this every Christmas. I have 100 1) envelopes, 2) cards, 3) labels, 4) stamps.

So what’s the fastest way to complete the task of stuffing the 100 envelopes? Two choices

  1. label 100, stamp 100, stuff 100….or
  2. label 1, stamp 1, stuff 1 x 100

I’ve always pursued method #1, but after reading The Lean Startup, I now see the power of small batches (method #2).

“…in process-oriented work like this, individual performance is not nearly as important as the overall performance of the system.”

When working with large batches, we consistently underestimate the time required to switch tasks. We don’t consider the time required to sort and stack the piles of incomplete envelopes.

Another huge benefit of small batches is the ability to spot problems and course correct (pivot). Thinking about the envelope example, what if the envelopes had been the wrong size? We would have wasted the time of labeling and stamping. If we worked in small batches, we would have spotted the issue almost immediately and been able to save time.

The efficiency of scale disappears with large batches because, as Ries explains, it is more difficult to deal with the size and complexity associated with  large batches. (seems simple when put that way)

You have made it this far into the post and you’re thinking, “what does letter stuffing have to do with me?” Let’s translate the letter task into a more generic job function…

You create marketing pieces for someone (let’s call him Jay) to review. You need to create pieces for five different products. You have two choices in front of you.

  1. Create all five pieces —> send to Jay —> begin next task
  2. Create 1 pieces —> have Jay review (repeat 5 times) —> begin next task

Most workplaces tend to be set up in silos, reinforcing path 1 as the “best practice.” Path 1  “promotes skill building, makes it easier to hold individual contributors accountable, and most important, allows experts to work without interruption. Unfortunately, reality seldom works out that way.”

Why is this? Think about the time involved in switching tasks while dealing with the batch – this takes time. Think about the potential that all five pieces have a common defect – this would drain time. Think about the likelihood for Jay to interrupt you after you have “completed” the task. Jay will have questions – this takes time. It may be counter-intuitive, but path 2 (small batches) will be faster.

Small batches and startups

What do small batches have to do with startups? The better question is what do small batches have to do with “lean”?

The lean startup borrows ideas from the lean manufacturing movement, where the objective is to eliminated wasted production. Working with small batches allow a startup to test a hypothesis more quickly. (note: I almost typed, “small batches allow a startup to ‘go to market’ more quickly, but as Ries shows us, the goal of a product launch in the eyes of a startup is to test a hypothesis – another post is coming on “gettting credit for learning.”)

Including unnecessary features, testing more than one hypothesis, developing a detailed business plan are all examples of large batch waste.

Small batch bourbon

Anyone who has had great Kentucky bourbon will not be surprised by the title of the blog post. Small batch bourbon is superior to large batches. In fact, single barrel is the best of “small batch.”

Are you struggling with issues associated with large batches? Can you make a change to process that would allow you to work with smaller batches? The next time a colleague proposes a “divide and conquer” approach, tell him or her about envelope example and try your hand working with a small batch.

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2 thoughts on “The power of small batches

  1. Pingback: The 5 Whys | Build To Think

  2. Pingback: Focus | Build To Think

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