How did businesses write and think about enterprise 50-60 years ago? Today is not the first time there as been a large way of technical innovation and entrepreneurship. Today is not the first time people are talking and debating how best to start a business. How was it done in the past? Are works such as the Lean Start-up new? Or have its concepts been peculating in the business world for a while?
Well in 1946, A Richard O Wessel's had some pretty 'Lean' ideas. His work is title Small Business as a Career shares Lean’s philosophy, values and advice.
When Small Business as a Career tells readers to check “Keep a sales record of the merchandise that you display and compare that record with sales of the same mechanise over a like period when it was not display” it is telling readers to perform similar tasks as asked in The Lean Start-up. The above quote encapsulates several of the Lean principles: it is creative accounting – an innovative ratio to actually test the assumption; it is build- measure-learn - testing a product and assumption; and it is validated learning. It is making the same core assumptions made by the lean movement – that business assumptions need to be tested is expressed in this once piece of advice.
But the Lean movement of the 1940s was more than Small Business as a Career. It also included Ross Dixon, a middle manager at Dominion Rubber, a major manufacturing in Kitchener, Canada, during the time. In Dixon’s archive includes documents such as “Straight thinking or how to come to the right decision”, includes several elements of the Lean movement. Its focus on precise data, on analysis, of questioning the problem, all read as being very up to date. Its final piece of advice, that an executive should “keep the mind open to new evidence on any side” could have been written in a blog last week.
Another similarity is the demand that management be more scientific. Just as Business Organization and Management, a textbook from 1958, told its reader that “there’s is the scientific approach to business problems. Decisions based on rule of thumb methods, custom, or mere expediency have to be minimized or avoided altogether.” Lean Start-up tells readers “in other words, we need the scientific method. In The Lean Start-up model, ever product, every feature, every marketing campaign – everything a start-up does – is understood to be an experiment designed to achieve validated learning.” Since the 1950s business leaders have searched for a way to make enterprise scientific.
Some 60 years later, what is most striking about Ross Dixon and his contemporaries is that their ideas are still percolating in the business community today. Today’s business leaders are told to think strategically about their business, to question their assumptions, to constantly study themselves for mistakes and errors. Today local businesses still expect that their community will support them. It particular the ideas of the ‘Lean start-up movement’ and the demands for community support that exist today have long histories.
As I argue in Business as Usual: An analysis of management perspectives in Kitchener-Waterloo , current business leaders and start-up founders often lack historical context and a sense of previous business experiences. They are familiar only with the narrative of their industry and their firm. This lack of historical awareness hinders their analysis and problem solving capacity. It is important to know that the current ideas of the Kitchener-Waterloo entrepreneurial community are similar to Ross Dixon’s because it allows decision makers to gain perspective. That perspective allows decision makers to see alternative solutions, ones unfamiliar to their industry specific narrative. The University of Waterloo Entrepreneurship Society was founded in 2011 yet its origins, ideas and solutions stretch back 60 years.
 O. Richard Wessels. Small Business as a Career. (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse NY, 1946) 126.
 Straight Thinking – or how to come to the right decisions. Circa 1955. File 137b. Ross Dixon Archive, GA 207. University of Waterloo Archive.
 Elmore Petersen, E Grosvenor Plowman. Business Organization and Management. (Richard Irwin Inc: Homewood Illinois, 1958)77.
 Eric Ries. The Lean Startup. (Crown Business: New York, 2011) 55.