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How Playing Lean Helped Launch an Innovative Business Advice Service for SMEs

Design for Service is a consultancy company that has backed Playing Lean twice on Kickstarter. This is a guest post by Sean Buckland, owner of the company and his case study.

How Design for Service came to sponsor Playing Lean

Playing Lean 1 was the first Kickstarter I backed. I’d just read the Lean Startup by Eric Ries and got involved in the local Lean Start Up community. What I found was surprising: Lots of enterprising people, all developing new ideas and businesses, but nearly all were missing the “lean” part of “Lean Startup”. They were, in effect, traditional start-ups.

Let’s go back a step. My company, Design for Service Ltd, provided specialist consultancy services using a blend of psychological and ‘Lean Six Sigma’ principles to help improve large enterprises and Governmental organisations. A key principle in all dealings was to help the client to learn how to solve their own challenges more successfully. What was really bothering was why, after so many years (decades), so few organisations had properly understood and embedded the (arguably) most successful, repeatable and learnable approach to improving quality? By contrast Lean Start Up, a young off-shoot, was growing like crazy. Time to investigate.

Back to the Lean Start Up communities. A natural question was then: “How can I help my local community to learn these principles more successfully?” The obvious starting point was to put on a couple of seminars that went through the key learning points from Eris Ries’ book. But it was too chalk and talk, too theoretical. So why not create a simulation, a game that would allow people to experience the principles? In fact, why not create an add on business product that would really help create value? Maybe someone already has? Internet search. Kickstarter link found. Playing Lean campaign went live that day! Only one option: to sponsor its development and get involved.

Prototyping and playtesting

Simen will tell, no doubt, of the print and cut out stage. Painful. But, we did some useful tests and contributed to the flow of feedback. Then we had a long evening in London with a polished prototype and a lot of enthusiastic play testers from a trendy tech firm. The post-game review lasted longer than the game. Shortly after the Playing Lean campaign relaunched, with the backing of Ash Mauyra and several major redesigns. This campaign was successfully funded in, I think, thirteen hours.

From game to reality

Back to business as usual. Occasionally the Playing Lean would get rolled out for the start up community or local colleges, but being based internationally meant not much progress. But the ‘Start Up Something’ bug was now firmly embedded.

Meet Ralph Stobart, Owner of Brightlake Ltd.  An identical service to Design for Service in client types, principles and enthusiasm for seeing other businesses flourish.  Ralph joined me on a project in the Czech Republic and over several months a few things became clear to us:

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if businesses learned to avoid putting the waste in while growing, and so avoid the pain and later costs of consultants etc. to get it back out?
  2. Wouldn’t it be great if the principles we taught (over and over) were in a practical usable form and affordable (both money and time) for any business owner or leader?
  3. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help lots of businesses at the same time?
  4. Wouldn’t it be great if we could spend more of our time developing and delivering great content than travelling to far away client sites? (And give us more family time too?)

It was time to dust off the Start Up ambitions.  Luckily the next big piece of work that came in was to develop and deliver a program on “Practical Innovation” for a hundred Omani engineers and entrepreneurs.  This gave the chance to put the theory into practice helping, in the end, seventeen business ideas to get off the ground, and in several cases become brand new businesses.

ProSemita is launched

With this experience and confidence behind us, it was time to press the button.  July 2018 Design for Service and Brightlake launched the new business ProSemita (Pro – professional, Semita – Pathway from Latin): “Equipping Business Owners and Leaders to Achieve Their Next business goal.”

And here’s some of the key learning points that helped get us started and heading in a good direction:

The ‘Green Tile’ phase: 

  • Understanding what problems our new customers (SME owners and leaders) have – and whether our solution ideas are a good fit
  • The lean canvas to keep it all together, but most importantly to keep testing assumptions
  • The Value Proposition canvas: not just getting a good problem-solution fit, but helping us to prioritize elements for our MVP and selecting a concierge model approach

The ‘Yellow Tile’ phase:

  • Playing Lean uses the abstract circle, square and triangle to represent customer requirements.  This really bears out in practice, we found ourselves coming up with new twists, whole new ideas, different types of supporting product etc
  • “The cost” of experimentation goes up, we’re beginning to struggle between delivery, service design and development activity and the growing overheads of running the company, we need to explore what skills will be the most valuable to add to the team
  • The growing focus on Marketing capability.  In the auction phase of Playing Lean 2 there are different strengths and biases available to commit resource to (reducing options for that turn).  We recognize that we need to be putting in place the skills and team for ‘orange tile’ inbound marketing, while continuing to do a lot of rapid prototyping.  This cuts in to our cash flows, but will transform our scalability.

The ‘Orange Tile’ phase:

  • Pivot! We have enough customer and operational data now to see what’s working from our MVP, but also what’s fundamentally unscalable.  A hugely difficult and extremely valuable day spent unpicking right from basics means we design a brand-new offering
  • Traction: Numerous activities mean that we’re able to start establishing a pipeline and methodology for feeding that pipeline with prospects who are looking for the service we provide
  • Value Proposition: This is now fairly easy to articulate and is enabling a range of marketing exercises to be smooth and effective
  • Although our pivot takes us back to developing a new MVP, things somehow feel more fluid, more productive

The ‘Red Tile phase’

  • Clearly, we’re still far from here, but we can at least begin to envisage what this might look like from a ProSemita offering point of view.  We wiped the board clean and rebuilt our Lean Canvas to be our best guess of the red product. And it only took an hour to do it.

The rest is, well, the future!


We’re exploring how to use Playing Lean in our offering. Although not tested yet, we’re looking at two similar services:

  1. Establishing and engaging action learning groups of entrepreneurs working in co-work facilities: using Playing Lean to set an agenda and then supporting the groups over time
  2. Supporting young people and those interested in entrepreneurship through colleges and “next generation” programmes of business networks: Using Playing Lean to engage and educate and also to create links to further development opportunities

Could we help you? 

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about how ProSemita can help you to achieve your next ambitious goal, or if there’s some aspect of your business that is stuck in ways you can’t seem to shift.

Sean Buckland and Ralph Stobart

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