When it comes to your store or restaurant, what really is “lean”? Is it a book? A methodology? Is it just being cheap?

When you walk by a busy shop in Times Square do you think they’re using “lean” practices?  If you ask the typical merchant or restaurant owner near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor about their “lean” methodology do you think they’d know what you’re talking about?  When you visit the Mall of America near Minneapolis are the retailers there experts in being “lean”?  The answer is no.  And yes.  Most retailers I know have never heard of being “lean” (or even if they have heard of it, they don’t pay much attention to the theory).  Many think that being lean just means being…well…cheap.  But lean is not cheap.  The successful retailers, restaurateurs and small business owners I work with are not cheapskates.  They employ lean practices every day.  They just don’t realize it.

Lean is thinking about the best way to spend money, not just the least expensive.

When you’re cheap you’re always looking for the lowest price.  Lean retailers are looking for the best price.  They stand firm with their commitment to quality and are very sensitive to overpaying.  But they will pay more for a store fixture that provides a better aesthetic value, a package of spice that will add additional flavor to a dish, an excellent store manager with a track record of experience.  Being lean means targeting your spending to those areas that will create the best experience for your customer and still give you the greatest return.  It’s about hiring the right people, partnering with the right companies and making purchases that satisfy a business goal, not your ego. This is not being cheap. This is being smart.

Lean is thinking about the best way to spend time, not just the quickest way.

It’s about doing things right…but as fast as possible.  Lean business owners value time as much as money.  They are always looking for ways to do things faster, to serve food quicker, to ring up more customers with less effort.  But they will never do this if it’s sacrificing quality. Sure, putting merchandise on the floor and asking your customers to pick it themselves may save time and offer a good solution for some.  But other retailers know that their customers value the input of a good salesperson and want a more personal experience.  It’s not always about doing things quicker and cheaper.

Lean is thinking of the best resources to apply to marketing, and not just gambling.

When you’re cheap you’re reluctant to spend money at all, particularly on marketing.  But of course marketing is important.  And lean retailers do invest.  But the investment is always more targeted, always more focused and always backed by metrics in an effort to prove that the dollars spent are returning value.  Maybe it’s Facebook.  Maybe it’s a check-in site or a mobile app focused on local traffic.  Or maybe it’s an ad online or in a traditional newspaper. Lean retailers spend their marketing dollars carefully and analyze the results. But they do spend.

A cheap retailer tends to ignore technology, or buy second hand hardware or cut corners on IT services.  Others I know spend more freely on tech, but these dollars go towards gadgets, the latest cool fads or even just handed over to software manufacturers for unnecessary upgrades. Lean retailers choose their technology with a specific return on investment in mind.  They invest in tools that will help them do things quicker and better. They demand a return on investment.  They understand the need for good hardware and good support.  They know that a good technology infrastructure is a critical backbone to their lean operations.  They don’t get cheap when it comes to technology.

Gene Marks