Lean Startup Principles

Operating Lean for Nonprofits

Operating lean is about cutting out what doesn't matter. That means activities which do not add value to the customer, constituent, and the organization itself.

Lean Thinking is a methodology famously applied in Toyota's factory production system. The philosophy is ubiquitous in the not-for-profit and for-profit world with prominent Lean Movements in industries like healthcare, software, construction, and in areas like acaedmia and social entrepreneurship.


The Lean Startup was coined by Eric Ries. While the lean methodology began in the manufacturing industry, Ries asserts the principles can be applied to any "human institution" incliuding nonprofits and charities.

Since its inception, other methodologies and philosophies have also adapted classic Lean principles: Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, Theory-of-Constraints (TOC), Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM), Mass Customization.

There are three central principles to lean startup that carry well over into the nonprofit sector:

  • Minimizing waste
  • Creating a culture of continuous improvement (or reiterating on programs/services/internal stuff)
  • All while maintaining awareness of the "big picture" or the true north of the nonprofit's mission.

Some Basic Lean Tenets

Here is a basic list of Lean Principles:

  • Emphasizing a culture of improvement
  • Make processes visible to discover possible waste
  • Simplify processes
  • Making new processes repeatable, scalable and optimzed
  • Bias towards action
  • Make changes incremental
  • Problems are opportunities for change and improvement

Continual Improvement 1

Even the best organizations generate substantial waste. This includes time, energy, and money that do not add value to the customer or to the overall mission.

Assemble with team members to identify opportunities to clean up potential waste in the organization. What processes are adding unnecessary complexity in your operations?

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