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Lean Lessons From Starcraft 2

The real-time strategy computer game Starcraft 2 is about economic production as much as it is about combat. One of the major trade-offs within the game is allocating resources between economic production, combat unit production, improving technology / upgrades, and combat units. The 'macro' style of play in particular places a heavy focus on maximizing economic production, usually through aggressive expansion, over building up an early army.

Despite all these indicators, it took me a while playing Starcraft 2 to realize that the principles from lean thinking are completely applicable to the game. Lean thinking derives from the lean manufacturing system used by Toyota that helped it become a powerhouse among automobile manufacturers. Once I made the association, I realized that many of the strategies and techniques used by top players can be derived from lean principles.

This demonstrates the power of lean: it is applicable not just to manufacturing of physical products but also to product design, business processes, creation of knowledge-based products such as software, and even games. Starcraft 2 can therefore serve as an excellent educational tool for conveying lessons about lean. (But good luck expensing the game as training material :)

One of the main lean principles is eliminating waste, or non-value-add activities. There are different categories of waste generally corresponding to different aspects of an idealized process that can be linked to specific aspects of Starcraft 2.

  • Excess Inventory: Minerals and vespene gas are the two resources in Starcraft 2 that are needed to build units, upgrades, and buildings (production centers or higher technology). Focusing on economic production - lots of workers - is important to ensure a high income of these resources, but letting the inventory of these grow, especially in the early and mid game, is considered wasteful - you should be using those resources to build units, buildings, or upgrades. A growing inventory is generally a sign that you have insufficient (or inactive) unit production.
  • Under-utilization: Inactive unit production buildings are wasteful: why build the building if you are not going to pump units out of it? This is especially true for building workers from Command Centers and Nexuses - if you miss building a worker, there is no way to 'catch up' to your opponent without expanding (and your opponent can expand at the same time, so you may never catch up). This is less true for the Zerg as they can stockpile larva produced via Queens, but still remains true for the initial three larva from any hatchery. This explains why becoming supply blocked is considered bad - it forces your unit production to become inactive until you can build more supply. To help deal with idle production Starcraft 2 added build queues for Terran and Protoss so that multiple units can be queued to build. Using the queues avoids one waste, but leads to the next...
  • Work in Progress: Lean focuses on providing value to the customer so anything that is a work in progress is not yet providing value. The larger the level of work in progress, the more resources committed with no value realized, which translates into waste. One pro tip is to never use build queues - only build a single unit at a time. This requires impressive multitasking abilities to always be ready to build another unit when the prior unit finishes to avoid under-utilization, even in the middle of battle. But it is a requirement at the pro level - the resources spent on the queued unit are not realized until later, whereas a less wasteful player can instead use those resources in a different way for a more immediate return on investment. The Terran ability to queue multiple buildings for a worker to build is convenient but is yet another example of this type of waste.
  • Excess Stock: Finished products sitting in storage do not make money - they have to be delivered to paying customers to earn their value. Combat units sitting around at least provide a defensive value, but they could be providing a much greater benefit by attacking the opponent to weaken them. There are a wide number of possible tactics - harassment attacks against workers, attacks on expansions, feints to gain a psychological edge, or merely establishing map control to expand. The keys are to not sacrifice your macro game and to not suffer a major, unequal loss of units in battle.
  • Delays: Any unnecessary delay between two events or process steps is a form of waste. One of the best examples of this is the use of proxies (proxy pylons, proxy barracks, or a proxy hatchery) to enable unit production near your opponent in order to eliminate the delay in marching units from your base to your opponents. Another example is moving a worker to your natural expansion prior to collecting the necessary minerals so that you can begin building the second you reach the necessary amount.

There's more that can be said about lean and Starcraft 2, but I'll stop for now and leave it as an exercise for the reader to discover additional associations. GLHF!

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