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A Lean Research Case Study: CASF

The Cambodian Scholarship Foundation is dedicated to educating and empowering adolescent girls in Cambodia. CASF works with local communities to identify students who show motivation, merit, and need, and provides funding, training, and mentoring to lead students through secondary school to higher education.

A 2016 program evaluation of CASF employed the principles of Lean Research, and found that after fifteen years of support for girls’ education, the program has been successful at keeping adolescent girls in school and contributing to a local culture of education.

Read the full case study here.

A Lean Research case study: Girl Effect

We are excited to present the first case study of the application of the Lean Research principles. TEGA is a mobile based, girl operated research approach designed to provide rapid access to authentic insights from communities in the Global South.

It’s Girl Effect’s solution to recognising that traditional Global South research approaches are sometimes intrusive and intimidating and, because of this; sometimes do not gain honest responses. Strangers arriving on doorsteps, asking for intimate information can create a dynamic where respondents feel uncomfortable speaking candidly about their lives. This is particularly true when the respondents in question are adolescent girls.

TEGA is borne out of the understanding that an adolescent girl is more likely to feel comfortable speaking truthfully about her life to another girl like her. She is more likely to respond openly to someone who understands her background and the culture in which she lives, as opposed to an adult stranger who does not share her experience.

Download the case study on the TEGA team’s integration of Lean Research principles here.

Next Billion features Lean Research

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Women from Ahmedabad, India participate in a water mapping exercise as part of an MIT evaluation of water test kits. Photo credit: MIT Comprehensive Initiative on Technology

In February and March 2016, the Lean Research team is excited to share a series of reflections on the Next Billion portal. Next Billion is a community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGO managers, policy makers, academics and others exploring the connection between development and enterprise. It is an initiative of the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.

Below, you can see a glimpse into our first post, co-authored by Kendra Leith and Elizabeth Hoffecker, introducing the Lean Research approach. You can read the full post here, directly on the Next Billion site.

The second post in this series, co-authored by Kim Wilson and Roxanne Krystalli, discusses how to make informed consent a more meaningful process for research participants, as well as explores the applications of Lean Research in vulnerable settings.


As researchers in international development, we often hear colleagues describe 100- to 200-question surveys that take hours to administer. We have heard many stories in which a boss or donor says, “While we have the farmers in the room, why not ask a few more questions? We might use that data in the future.” We’ve also seen plenty of rigorous studies produce results that sit on the proverbial shelf and we’ve heard communities ask, “Why do you keep asking us the same questions every year, and what have you done with the data?”

These stories and others led us to begin reimagining the research process. What if research participants enjoyed the experience and found it valuable? What if we asked questions that were relevant to participants? What if the data were actually used to make decisions? And what if we reduced the burden and waste in the research process?

To read the rest of  this post, visit Next Billion. To read the second post in this series, visit this page.

Redefining Rigor: The Lean Research Working Paper

In the spring of 2014, the Lean Research steering team articulated its motivations for developing the approach, the basic principles underpinning it, and the key questions of Lean Research in a Working Paper. This paper remains a work-in-progress, and it is freely available for feedback and use. 

You can read the opening paragraphs below, and you may download the full paper for free here. References and footnotes for the excerpt below can be found in the full paper. You may cite the paper as Paula Armstrong, Rachel Gordon, Elizabeth Hoffecker, Roxanne Krystalli, Kendra Leith, Bryan Stinchfield, and Kim Wilson, “Lean Research: Defining Rigor,” Working Paper, MIT D-Lab-The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, March 2015.



Here you come to ask us the same silly questions that you go sell to aid sponsors. Now when the aid comes you keep it for yourself. I don’t want to answer any question. Go take the answers for the ones we provided last year.

Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund, encountered this objection from a Burkinabe mango farmer in 2011 and, in response, developed a client-centric evaluation approach. Yet this is not an isolated remark: other academic, nonprofit, and public-sector researchers carrying out social science field work with populations facing poverty, displacement, and other forms of vulnerability have been accused by research subjects of “stealing stories” and extracting large amounts of data without offering local communities and stakeholders anything in return. “Why,” one East Timorese teenager asked Columbia University’s Michael Wessells in Research Settings: A View From Below, “should we talk with people who come here and ask many questions but do nothing to help us?”

While most field research in developing countries is undertaken with the goal of eventually helping improve the lives of marginalized people, research with human subjects can be disrespectful, irrelevant and inefficient. In addition to potentially harming the welfare of subjects or simply being extractive, research that fails to acknowledge its own status as a development activity and the power imbalances between researchers and subjects runs the risk of generating inaccurate findings.

Even studies that avoid such pitfalls are frequently irrelevant or inaccessible to practitioners and policy-makers. Finally, some research is not right-sized: survey and interview protocols can include hundreds of questions and take hours to administer. These concerns undermine the potential for research to contribute to both positive developmental outcomes for subjects and sound decision-making in the international development space.

Lean Research has been developed by researchers, practitioners, and donors at leading development institutions who agree that the research process should generate beneficial outcomes for those involved – and most importantly, for research subjects. Drawing from human-centered approaches to development and design, Lean Research places the experience of the human research subject at the center of research design and implementation. Lean Research asks: if we are researching people in order to improve some aspect of their life, should not our research process also align with that objective? What would it look like to conduct human-centered field research in a way that minimizes negative burden and waste while maximizing meaning and value for all stakeholders in the research process?

The full paper is freely available for download here.

Introducing the Lean Research Principles


Drawing from human-centered design, participatory research and lean production, Lean Research emphasizes the following principles, which we call “the four Rs”:

  • Rigor: Follow good research practices for your discipline or field of practice
  • Respect: Maximize the value of the experience and outputs for research participants and stakeholders, including creating an opportunity for them to enjoy the experience, reject participation in the study and review and refute findings
  • Relevance: Address priority issues for stakeholders, including research participants, and produce results that are understandable, accessible, and actionable
  • Right-size: Use only the protocols, participants, and resources necessary to collect data that informs decisions

The four principles of Lean Research are not new, but are often pitted against each other as trade-offs. Lean Research emphasizes conducting research in ways that exemplify and balance all four principles and challenges researchers to identify opportunities to implement them in an integrated fashion. As a broad framework and approach to social science research, Lean Research can be applied regardless of whether the methods are quantitative, qualitative, or mixed.

By creating a respectful and enjoyable experience for human subjects in the context of research questions that are relevant to key stakeholders, including participants, Lean Research seeks to increase the quality of information gathered through research, improve the usefulness of research findings for stakeholders; and enable both the research process and outputs to benefit study subjects and their communities, as well as donors and decision-makers.

You can learn more about the Lean Research principles in our Working Paper and in the Lean Research Framework, both available for free download.

Guiding Questions for Lean Research

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Our Lean Research Framework accompanies the four Lean Research principles of rigor, relevance, respect, and right-sizing with a set of guiding questions to ask when designing and implementing field research using this approach. A glimpse into these questions is below, with the full set available for free download in the Lean Research framework.

Is our research rigorous?

  • What steps are we taking to ensure the internal validity of the research?
  • If applicable, what steps are we taking to ensure the external validity of the research?
  • How are we protecting the data of the people who participate in the research? 

Is our research respectful?

  • What actions are we taking to create an environment in which research subjects can enjoy and find meaning in the experience?
  • What actions are we taking to ensure that the human subject feels truly free to reject participation in the study or to drop out of a study once it has started without fearing or experiencing negative consequences?
  • Are we appropriately using existing information and knowledge that local host institutions may have?
  • What specific steps will we take to provide study subjects with opportunities to review and refute (if applicable) the study findings?

Is our research relevant?

  • What secondary research have we done in order to assure us that primary research on the topic we are proposing is actually needed?
  • What steps are we taking to understand which aspects of the research local host institutions and research subjects find most relevant and how are we factoring that into our research design and dissemination strategy?
  • What steps will we take to communicate and share the research findings in ways that are understandable and accessible to all stakeholders, including research subjects?

Is our research right-sized?

  • What criteria are we using to assess how large (in terms of people or households involved) and costly it is reasonable for the study to be?
  • How are we assessing which activities and questions are essential to the research objectives and which ones we can eliminate? Are we eliminating all non-essential protocol and questions?

For the full set of guiding questions accompanying the Lean Research principles, please see the Lean Research Framework.

Engage with us

The best way to engage with us and a community of researchers, practitioners, and decision-makers implementing the lean research approach is by joining our Community of Practice. Our Community of Practice exchanges information regarding upcoming events, new Lean Research tools and publications, or stories of designing and implementing field research using the Lean Research approach.

If you would like to contact the Lean Research steering team, please use the form below.

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