What's the opposite of "Lean?"


All I hear about nowadays is the Lean Movement. I like it, but what is it rebelling against?

The status quo, I know, but what's the name of non-lean thought?

For example, the opposite of "Agile" is "Waterfall." What's the opposite of "Lean?"

Lean Business Process Agile

asked Jun 6 '10 at 10:23
16,231 points
  • The question rests on a false promise. Running is not opposite of basketball, chocolate is not opposite of an orange, ajax is not an opposite of a static html. They're all things that stand on their own. "Lean" does not rebel against anything in particular but if you take each idea/process that is advocated under the "lean" umbrella, there's probably an obvious opposite. For example, the opposite of continuous integration is not doing continuous integration. Not releasing Minimum Viable Product is releasing complex, non-minium product etc. – Krzysztof Kowalczyk 13 years ago
  • Tis funny - nearly everyone in the answers talks "Lean v Fat" which is not what I got from Eric Rees book which was more about structuring your startup to test assumptions, learn, iterate. I wonder if the "Lean Startup" might be a bad name - "Nimble Startup Movement"? – Ryan 12 years ago
  • @Ryan - good point. I don't think of emaciated as being lean. – Jeff O 11 years ago

9 Answers


The word "lean" is totally overloaded with meaning in the general business community. Confusion is unavoidable, especially becasue it has become a 'fashionable' word, and lots of people use it for ... almost anything. When used 'correctly', depending on the context, I find it commonly means:

  1. The Lean Manufacturing methodology, a offspring from the Toyota Production System. This is a comprehensive methodology for improving production output, reducing time to finished product, and reducing waste in manufacturing organizations. Lean Manufacturing has been very hyped up in the large company and government world. It is also the system that popularized things like kanban boards and 5 Why's and others in the West.
  2. The Lean Startup methodology, a methodology for discovering a market need, finding product/market fit, and scaling early-stage startups. It's quite new and currently being developed by Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and a crowd of entrepreneurs.
  3. Corporate-speak for efficient, well trimmed, slender. The opposite of bloated, fat, slow. Especially used about an organizations staff size relative to its output.

I don't know what Lean Manufacturing 'stands opposed to'. Tongue in cheek answer, General Motors perhaps? OK, I'm sure there are several methodologies for manufacturing plants, but I don't know them.

The Lean Startup methodology mostly stands opposed to ... nothing. Before Lean Startup there really was no systematic body of theories and practices for building early-stage companies in an unknown market. That's why I think Lean Startup is so uniquely valuable, it affords a shared set of practices and KPI's to build a early-stage company by, where historically there has been only anecdotal evidence and guesses.

the opposite of "Agile" is "Waterfall." What's the opposite of "Lean?"

Ehmn, "Waterfall" actually. AFAIK "Lean Manufacturing" and "Lean Startup" have only one essential element in common; they have an iterative element in them.

"Lean Manufacturing" stresses ongoing, incremental improvement in simplification and waste reduction. "Lean Startup" talks about iterations within each of its 4 phases -- not the same as sprints in SCRUM; but something very compatible with an Agile (SCRUM, XP) software development methodology.

But "Lean" should hopefully not become corporate-speak for "iterative". That would be a shame and quite confusing.

answered Jun 6 '10 at 20:45
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • Before the Lean Startup concepts, I think it was believed that a startup was actually like a big fat company, but with less people... :-) – Fabio Ferrari 14 years ago


The US federal Government :-)

answered Jun 7 '10 at 06:08
Zuly Gonzalez
9,194 points
  • +1 best example and description hands down! and it's only 4 words. – Ricardo 13 years ago
  • Hear hear! What I'd like to see is a government office, federal or state, exercise some startup (esp. Agile) mentality. You'd think in California a constrained budget in would encourage more of it! – Henry The Hengineer 13 years ago
  • @NeoTycoon: I work for the government, and I couldn't agree with you more. But unfortunately, that will never happen. The problem is that the government is designed to consume (spend money), while private industry is designed to create (make money). The government has no sense of control because there is no punishment for overspending, but more importantly, there is no reward for underspending. – Zuly Gonzalez 13 years ago
  • I would really be interested in the explanation of this:) – Herr K 12 years ago
  • While possibly true, not especially useful IMHO. – Jim Blizard 12 years ago


I think "Bloat" sums it up pretty good. Bloated process. Bloated management. Bloated bureaucracy. Bloated products.

As for the "Lean Startup", I think that's kind of an oxymoron. All startups need to be lean since burn rate is critical to manage in order to do a successful launch.

answered Jun 7 '10 at 05:40
Jarie Bolander
11,421 points


I suspect that it is the vilification and up-ending of the MBA-type organization. I don't really think it is anything new - just a new name on something some people have been doing. I don't know enough about Eric's position or the definition of "lean" in this context.

I doubt "lean" is going to make many inroads in fortune 500 companies, but effective small groups and organizations have always found ways to succeed in doing things efficiently.

Jason, given your penchant for the hot new buzzword - we can perhaps fairly say this is the "new paradigm". (Or the one that sells business books and seats at conferences anyway :-) )

answered Jun 6 '10 at 12:29
Tim J
8,346 points


To me, 'fat' is quite descriptive. :-)

answered Jun 6 '10 at 10:34
George Tziralis
81 points


As always, there are multiple paths one can choose to reach a destination.

Is a swim suit the opposite of a parka jacket? I'd say - Pick the one that best suits your environment.

I think one needs to understand what "lean" is before attempting to define what it isn't.

Here's a good NY Times article describing lean startups.

While a significant amount of research and progress has been made to streamline the application development process (Scrum, Crystal Clear, XP, Agle et al), very little has been done to research and evaluate the patterns used by startups to define product / customer development.

Lean startup advocates utilize agile development advances but approach "activities outside the building" - sales, marketing, business development - utilizing a similar iterative process. It calls this "Customer Development" vs "Product Development", since startups don't fail because they lack a product; they fail because they lack customers and a profitable business model.

The problem with "Product Development" planning lies in the fact that "old school" product development models were applicable to pre-existing companies doing product extensions to a known customer base -- completely out of tune with what startups experience.

A good series of articles to read can be found here.

I would sum up that the lean startup model "Attempts to combine software development and customer development as a collaborative, iterative process to allow organizations to quickly validate and align their efforts to maximize their profit potential."

answered Jun 7 '10 at 23:24
Jim Galley
9,952 points


Whatever it is, the rebellion will soon be crushed and young Skywalker will be one of us.

answered Mar 14 '11 at 12:38
Ron M.
4,224 points


I think that making some examples of non-Lean start-ups could shed light on the dichotomy.
Does anyone have any examples?

answered Oct 9 '14 at 08:38
Alessandro Cordova
11 points


Lean = measured, cautious, judicious, pragmatic, and maybe even pesimistic

Perhaps opposites include cavalier, extravagant, overkill, victim, optimistic (the flavor that says 'don't worry, it'll work out... (since everything is already provisionally complete).

answered Mar 14 '11 at 08:35
249 points

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