The Core of Apple Includes Some Lean Thinking

I wrote about Apple not quite a year ago, referring to it as a successful “anti-lean” company. My characterization was based on an article in Wired magazine that described how Apple employees often operate in secrecy, fear and paranoia, with Steve Jobs a notorious micro-manager – very much the antithesis of the lean concept of respect for people.

Now a Forbes article offers some additional insights into Apple. And it seems that, while everything in the Wired article may be true, there is also some lean thinking going on at Apple that contributes to the company’s success.

Specifically, Jobs instills in Apple workers the importance of focusing on providing value for the customer, and eliminating waste from processes.

Apple is known for producing hard-nosed industrial designers, interface gurus and entrepreneurs who thrive on turning raw technology into a slick mass-market sensation--people a lot like Steve Perlman, who left Apple in 1990. Perlman, now chief executive of tech incubator Rearden LLC, developed much of the multimedia technology used in the color Macintosh.

"I can tell you I can't look at a font on a screen or a piece of paper without going into a very critical mode," Perlman says. "Too many engineers don't think about how to turn the bundles of technology they create into a usable, intuitive gadget that they can take home and use. I'm just hypersensitive to it. It's part of my DNA..."

FanSnap Chief Executive Mike Janes--who ran Apple's online store through 2003-- remembers how Jobs would refer to certain situations as a "chain of pain." Whether it involved reducing the number of steps needed to make a home movie or buy a computer from one of Apple's stores, Jobs looked for ways to distill a process down to its essence.

As far as I know, Apple doesn’t refer to its focus as lean. And Jobs does have some unconventional ways of thinking.

Apple apparently lives its "Think Different" slogan. "At some other companies it would be a black belt process with stop gates and check-ins and lots of measuring and concept validation testing with users," says Jennifer Kilian, who managed a team that created Apple instructional products and is now creative director at Frog Design.

Not at Apple. In part, that's thanks to an ineffable style that, in some ways, started with Jobs. When the team working on the Mac asked Jobs in 1983 for a standard they should shoot for, Jobs' answer was simple: the Beatles. And not just the Beatles--the early Beatles. "That's a big leap," says design guru Clement Mok, who worked on the original Macintosh interface.

Overall, Apple is clearly not a lean company. But Apple does seem to understand one fundamental lean concept: It’s all about the customer.


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