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.


Rapid Prototyping from a six year old


Kids are amazing prototypers. It is how they learn. Have you ever watched a two year old continually drop a toy to see what happens? She is experimenting. She is making sense of her world by doing.

I had a recent experience with my daughter that showed me that she is better at prototyping than I. We were making snowflakes – one of her favorite crafts. You fold paper several times. Next cut out some shapes. Then you unfold the paper to observe your snowflake – except that is not what my daughter did. She would cut a little then unfold the paper to she what she had made. Cut a little more and then check it out. Cut a little more and then it was done. My method was to cut, cut, cut and then unfold to see what it looked like.

What my daughter was doing was prototyping. As opposed to me – I was just cutting away and waiting until it was too late to change course. Have you made the mistake I have made before? Maybe it was with a project – you worked weeks and weeks without getting feedback. Or a presentation – you spent two days getting everything right before showing it to your boss. Try and take a cue from a six year old and check out your snowflake before it is too late.

I’ll save more on kids prototyping for later when I cover Tom Wujec’s TED talk.

Everything is a prototype

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Prototyping is important….really important. I am often surprised at how much I and others want to toil away on building something big without first building a prototype. Maybe it’s because the word prototype conjures the image of a scaled down model car, or a mock up of a room…and because we aren’t designers or engineers we see no need to prototype.

But anything can be prototyped. You can prototype a powerpoint deck. You can prototype a financial model. You can prototype a process.

As a design thinker, I view everything I do as a prototype. My next presentation I am working on – prototype. This blog – prototype. A product we are trying to develop – prototype. My relationship with my children – prototype.

What are the benefits of thinking in terms of prototype? Here are a few:

  • You can welcome feedback as you don’t claim that your product, process, relationship are perfect and or finalized
  • You can view the feedback as what is precious, not the prototype. I’ve heard it said, “construct your prototype like you know you are right, test your prototype like you know you are wrong”
  • You are still in the mode of a learner. You use your prototype as a way to gain empathy and to learn about the users of your prototype
  • You are still thinking about iterating

Here’s an example of how I prototype at work. I wanted to construct a graph that showed risk vs return, but I needed the feedback and thoughts of others colleagues. Rather than construct the graph completely, I printed out circles and then cut them out. When I talked with my coworkers we placed the circles in the appropriate place. I was treating this graph as a prototype and I wanted to construct it in a way that invited feedback. Allowing the users to move the circles around changed the dynamic of the conversation. I do this sort of stuff all the time and it’s funny to see the looks I get when breaking out the scissors, glue stick, or other arts and crafting materials. Actually, I could create an indicator for creativity – number of times I use crafting materials during the week. The target should be 5 – once a day!

See the picture below for the example.

Risk/Reward Prototype

Risk/Reward Prototype

I believe making prototypes will help make you more efficient and creative. Just the simple act of making the prototype make give you insights into the problem you are trying to solve.

So what can you view as a prototype? How have you prototyped lately?