Applying Lean Startup – a disruptive entrepreneurial method that requires both flexibility and reactivity – to an established company such as Toyota may sound quite odd at first, but happens to be really useful when it comes to innovation. Two weeks ago the conference “Mistakes Were Made: Applying Lean Startup at Toyota” was held at Neo’s offices, where one could learn how Toyota’s InfoTechnology Center (ITC) and Neo worked together, using lean startup methods, on a connected car project.

Here are a few lessons, sometimes obvious but good to remember, that any manager willing to experiment with this specific management technique in a large structure should know:

Lesson 1: Don’t be greedy

Innovating and brainstorming within a lean startup process requires the fixation of limits and the assessment of a project’s feasibility before beginning. Toyota ITC’s team quickly experienced it: designers were quite enthusiastic about replacing the radio with an android tablet, which would make beyond the aesthetic aspect, a convenient tool for navigation and music. What happened is, since the tablet was subject to harsh conditions in the car, the team vainly wasted a lot of time fixing the device.

Lesson 2: Articulate your experiment before building anything; in other terms: build something that people are going to use! To do so, getting out of the building before creating a product – to make sure that it provides value to the customer – is essential.

For example, Toyota ITC’s team wanted to solve parking issues and used a simple app featuring a big P sign that would transform by clicking on it to a map showing the nearest parking lots. Then, the team tried the app they had just created in the real world… and realized that all the P signs displayed in the street made their app completely useless!

Lesson 3: Find people most likely to use your product, this is to say acquire customers wisely – one of the lean startup concepts being converting experimenters to first customers if the project succeeds.

For instance, in order to test a new product and get feedback from potential customers, offering $100 to anyone who would test the product for a month is not the best solution: most people will do it for money…

Questions you may have if you would like to apply Lean Startup methods within your company:

  • Is it difficult to find customers to test the product?

By being a big company with a famous brand such as Toyota, you will benefit from having a brand name that will quickly attract enough people to participate in the program and to give their feedback. Again, during the test phase, it is more difficult to find the right type of customers that your product is really aiming at.

  • How to include the management in the process?

To involve the management team as much as possible, nothing is better than talking to people, texting and emailing them with the same conveyed message: “we are from the same company, with a common goal”. They will also feel more included in the project if you can show hands-on videos and photographs from the field.

  • Applying Lean Startup requires doing more meetings than usual. How to keep designers, developers and other team members from being overwhelmed by meetings?  

To avoid doing strenuous meetings, organize them with a few chosen people and within a specific time frame. Also, set a detailed schedule: a specific amount of time spent to develop a specific feature – not more. A meeting should no longer be structured as a reporting, but more like a discussion to keep everyone up-to-date.

  • How to get designers and developers to work together?

Toyota ITC and Neo developed a culture of rotating between developers and designers so that everyone really understands the product and can fix it. There is always a lot of conflict and misunderstanding between the two : try to get developers involved in the design process and have them talk to customers.

  • Can lean startup methods damage the brand?

It is part of the risk you take when you want to be an entrepreneur.




Vinuth Rai is a Director at the Toyota InfoTechnology Center (ITC) in Mountain View, CA. He works on developing platforms and services for the next generation of connected vehicles. @vinuth_rai


Neo is a global product innovation company, gathering more than a hundred people around the world (Singapore, UK, New York, San Francisco…). They design and build mobile and Web products, create corporation innovation programs, and transform internal talent by pairing and teaching.