Microsoft Opens Its Windows to Let Lean In

Is it possible Microsoft has actually learned something about lean?

I don’t believe anyone has ever referred to Microsoft as a lean company. I’ve never heard of the company adopting a lean strategy or tactics, and the fact that Windows has always been a bloated, error-laden product – meaning lacking in quality – suggests considerable room for improvement.

But Microsoft has also often been a company that, at least to some degree, can learn from its mistakes.

By now you are undoubtedly aware of the release of Windows 7, the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system. The reviews of Windows 7 have been pretty good, certainly better than the much-reviled Windows Vista.

I came across a fascinating article on CNN.com describing the process that went into the development of Windows 7. Amazingly, Microsoft apparently has some new-found respect for its supply chain partners, and a stronger focus on customer value.

This time around, though, Microsoft shared its earliest plans, sought input, and held regular meetings with the PC makers. In addition, it dedicated engineering teams to work with each of the biggest computer makers to help them work through any issues specific to their designs…

When finally asked for their early input, computer makers were not shy with their ideas for how Microsoft could do better. Indeed, the computer makers' fingerprints can be found all over the product from the way it supports touch input to which features are included in which versions of the product…

Among the changes that came directly from the computer makers was the about-face that Microsoft did with regards to Windows 7 Starter--the entry-level version of the product aimed primarily at Netbooks. Initially, Microsoft wanted to impose a limit of three open applications at a time, in part to distinguish the version from higher-end editions.

PC makers complained loudly that the restriction was too onerous--and might tempt consumers to stick with the older and less secure Windows XP. Microsoft eventually relented and, though it has maintained other limitations, Netbooks with Windows 7 Starter can run as many applications as their limited memory will allow.

Another feature that grew out of discussions with computer makers and business customers is the addition of an "XP Mode"--an option that allows Windows 7 users to run a free, virtualized copy of Windows XP to run older applications that aren't compatible with newer operating systems. In some cases, one incompatible program was keeping businesses from even considering a move off Windows XP.

Microsoft also had harsh messages for the PC companies. The vast amounts of preinstalled software that they were shipping on consumer machines, so-called "crapware" were slowing down systems and hurting the PC's image.

The computer makers and Microsoft began looking at each piece of software, whether it came from the PC manufacturers or a third party, and measuring its impact on the system. Those that were bogging things down were told to fix their software or else got pulled from new PCs.

The result is that Windows 7, in many cases, can boot up more quickly and go in and out of sleep in a matter of seconds. Consumers will also notice they get systems that are a lot less cluttered, in some cases with nothing more than a recycle bin on their desktop when they first boot their PC.

What Microsoft has done is just a few small steps in the direction of lean – and lean is a term that is probably still unfamiliar to most executives there.

Still, it is nice to hear that even such a large company can begin to change its mindset.

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