Pixar: Where Creativity Meets Performance Through Lean

Whether you’ve grown up watching “Monsters Inc.” and “Toy Story” or not, you’re probably familiar with Pixar and its enchanting animations. They release one success after another and touch generations with their creativity.

But how do they manage to create bright stories from different universes in such an outstanding way? For starters, Pixar’s president and co-founder Edwin “Ed” Catmull managed to build an amazing team over the years and a culture in which people, diversity and creativity always come first. In other words, their team’s performance for itself is already high. Secondly—and the key to bringing assertiveness and performance to an essentially creative and abstract environment—they successfully use Lean practices.

Despite the fact that Lean was born in the manufacturing environment, it’s considered a philosophy that can be used by both product and service industries. Companies such as Amazon, Nike and Spotify use Lean in order to add value to their customers and improve their processes—at Pixar, it isn’t any different.

Developing a Lean Creative Process

Even though Lean (a.k.a. a performance-driven philosophy) and creativity seem to run perpendicular, they can definitely meet halfway!

In Pixar’s case, can you imagine the development of an animation from scratch without being precise? As a complex and long (in terms of time and single steps) process, it requires the participation of different teams, apart from a variety of phases until the final product is released.

Source: Pixar

Now, what if this process was done without clear organization and communication between teams? It would be messy, deliveries would probably be delayed and several types of waste, bottlenecks and obstacles would get in the way every time a movie was made.

So what do they do to avoid these problems? They know that when applying Lean practices, this scenario shifts from complete chaos to a more precise and predictable operation. Lean ensures that their animations will always be produced in a coordinated way.

But How is Lean Used at Pixar?

Based on the idea of unhindered communication, Pixar has always had an open mind for a philosophy of improvements and value delivery to the customers—the spectators.

They believe in a culture where everyone in the company, regardless of their position, can feel free to express their opinions, provide feedback and share ideas. It’s an open space for creativity and authenticity. It’s a company that believes in its people.

In many ways, it can be related to Lean principles. Being a philosophy that focuses on people and performance, candidness and empathy are essential. That’s why it’s important for the collectivity to be an inherent characteristic of the Lean organization. It’s not a top-down practice, it’s something to be built and embraced by everyone. And that’s what Pixar does naturally.

Source: Pixar

Value is the Boss

For Pixar, more than releasing movies and short films, they deliver high standard, award-winning, animated pictures. The stories about magical worlds have the power to touch everyone who watches them. Sometimes they move us to the edge of our seats, sometimes they make us cheer and sometimes they even make us cry. This right here, my friend, is value.

In Lean, value is a key concept. Everything you do must add value to your customer—their perception of your product or service is what really matters.

“Value: Everything your customer is willing to pay for”
Beginner’s Guide for Future Lean Experts

Kanban and The Andon System are Their Secret Weapons

In order to organize their creative process and deliver more value to the audience, Pixar adopted the Kanban board—a visual Lean tool that allows you to manage activities through its whole process. In the studio’s case, Kanban is used to develop the initial idea until it’s finally animated. For them, it’s a great way of predicting a process that is usually unpredictable.

This method enables everyone to keep track of the new release every step of the way. People know what their colleagues are doing and how their actions affect the process, which allows them to spot any kind of waste that might stand in their way.

Multidisciplinary teams work together in order to deliver the best they possibly can, so this process of cooperation improves team morale and creates a cycle of continuous creativity.

Source: Pixar

Another key Lean tool used by Pixar is the Andon System. This consists of the idea that anyone in the company can stop the production line at any time if waste, bottlenecks and obstacles are spotted. In Pixar’s case, if something that might hurt the animation’s value is detected, the creative process is temporarily suspended to undergo analysis.

To Infinity and Beyond

All of Pixar’s Lean practices were implemented because they truly value their people and their customers. That’s the essence of Lean thinking. And just like some movies are designed to have a sequel and keep the magic going, Lean companies are shaped to continuously improve, so they constantly add value to their customers.

Everything Pixar does strives to bring joy to viewers. Their collaborative philosophy, their continuous creativity and their culture of candidness seek to get every obstacle out of the way in order to persistently provide the highest value for their customers. And they’ve never failed this mission.

Their success with this mindset is proof that every company, whatever the niche, can thrive with Lean philosophy. So how about getting your Lean transformation started today? Gather your team, choose your processes and let’s get hands-on!

To infinity and beyond, future Lean manager!

Want to know more about Lean practices? Read our Beginner’s Guide for Future Experts here and check out the Lean Hub—the digital headquarters of Lean management.

Written by Leticia Moreira, Graduated in Journalism, Leticia is a storytelling lover and a very communicative person. Being in the Lean Marketing team at Pipefy, her mission is to show the world how Lean is cooler than imagined.