Comparing the Lean vs Agile methodologies is the source of much confusion – especially for organizations that are new to using them. This confusion arises because both are popular project management methodologies that are fairly new. Both encourage faster and more flexible project management. Yet, although there are several similarities, there are also some important differences.
It is better not to confuse the two, as they can be useful under quite different circumstances. They can also be combined to be even more powerful, but this is something we shall explore later in this article. This article quickly defines Lean and Agile methodologies, before comparing the similarities and differences, and then exploring why an organization might choose one over the other.
Lean can be defined as “a purposeful pursuit of flow”. Lean companies are committed to delivering customer value through continuous improvement of products and processes. It originated in Japan in the 1950s and 60s, most famously from the Toyota production system. Toyota empowered workers to make decisions and improvements without asking permission, which enabled continuous improvement from the ground up.
Through this worker empowerment and focus on continuous improvement, Japanese companies were able to focus on eliminating everything that did not add value. Eliminating waste in this context means cutting out all unnecessary meetings, tasks, and documentation, as well as avoiding multitasking.
Viewing work at a higher level helps to optimize processes. At the same time, respecting the workers who do the job and know how to do it best, should lead to giving those workers the equipment and tools they need, and then leaving them alone to get on with the work.
If Lean is about pursuing flow and eliminating waste, Agile is about building better products. Since 2001 and the Agile manifesto for software development, this has come to refer to developing better digital products in particular.
The Agile methodology, in general, focuses on development rather than production. Agile also focuses on people, as well as culture and mindset. In the last 20 years, it has evolved into multiple techniques and frameworks, including scrum.
Lean vs Agile: similarities and differences
Lean and Agile methodologies share so many similarities that it is easy for people to confuse the two. But it is also important to be aware of the key differences.
Lean vs Agile Similarities
When comparing Lean vs Agile, both emphasize the end result, which must create value for the customer. While Agile allows for constant adaptation in line with the client’s needs, Lean ensures there is no waste; Both approaches prioritize value.
They also both prioritize collaboration between employees, as both look upon the team members who perform the tasks are more important than the tools they use.
Comparing lean vs agile, lean allows for production using the smallest possible number of lots, helping to eliminate waste and optimize efficiency, while Agile provides for many small iterations of a product in increments, again to help optimize efficiency.
The Lean methodology also calls for what is known as “Kaizen” in Japanese – or continuous improvement. Every process should be continuously inspected and adapted in order to improve it. Agile insists on regular inspections of results and the working method to come up with possible improvements. It is in this area that Agile and Lean are probably most similar.
Lean vs Agile Differences
Yet the differences between lean vs agile are also significant.
Agile focuses on the outcome of building better products, whereas Lean is about improving processes with the goal of leading to better products.
Agile is, therefore, more suited to unpredictable situations where processes are subject to constant change from external forces. Agile’s definition of what makes for a better product is open-ended and able to evolve, while the process itself is less important than the end goal.
Because Agile focuses less on the process and more on the outcome, improving processes may be one of many ways to reach that goal, or it may not be. Lean, on the other hand, is typically applied to a repetitive, predictable process, and aims to improve that process in order to make a better product.
Better could mean closer to spec or it could mean faster, but it will be based on incremental improvements to existing processes. Lean applies to repetitive processes aiming to produce multiple better versions of the same product each time. Agile applies to repetitive processes where we iterate on improving one product.
Choosing Agile vs Lean for your organization
It’s difficult to say which methodology in lean vs agile may be better for your organization. It depends on the type of organization and the nature of the project or product being developed. This is one reason why it makes sense to use project management software that allows you to use both methods so you can try both approaches to see which works most effectively.
While Lean strives to improve the process that produces the end product, Agile strives to improve the product itself. But because Lean and Agile principles are so similar, it often makes sense to combine the two. Both ultimately focus on providing the highest possible value to customers, increasing efficiency, and giving customers the product that best suits their needs.
A bad process is often one of the reasons for bad products. As a result, Agile teams may benefit greatly from applying Lean principles in software development, for example. Reducing defects and waste make sense for both approaches.
As long as you are clear about whether you are focusing on improving the process (Lean) or improving the end product (Agile).
To see how you can start experimenting with applying Lean and Agile methodologies in your organization, why not get in touch to see how Teamhood can help you?
2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood.
2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank.
2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course
2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise.
Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games
Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products.
MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University.
Hobbies: Racing, MTB cycling, Windsurfing