Agile & Lean, a powerful combination


Agile & Lean, a powerful combination

Are Agile and Lean the same? Do they compete against each other or are they closely intertwined? What are their differences? As a consultant, I have faced this kind of questions countless times. In this article, I will try to explain the main concepts of these methodologies, their strengths and similarities, and how they can complement each other to do the best in the best way.

Lean: do “the best”

  The origins of Lean can be traced back to the Toyota Production System, which combined the analysis of tasks and processes with the consideration and autonomy of the operators. Much more than a methodology, Lean put above all the concepts of flexibility, the constant search for quality, and the importance of a cultural change. Lean means doing more with less for the benefit of the customer. Beginning with a deep understanding of the needs and desires of the client, it proposes to eliminate those activities that do not add value to him/her. The result is the use of less time, less space, less effort, less equipment, and fewer materials. Lean Manufacturing analyzed processes in-depth, in order to improve and accelerate them by eliminating waste, smoothing imbalances, and simplifying difficult tasks. The key is a continuous improvement mindset, that has the ultimate goal of giving the customer what he/she wants, when and how he/she wants it. The experience of Toyota, which made Japan grow exponentially and made Fordism stagger, has been studied with great interest by the Western countries. In the quest to bring this management mode to all types of companies, James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones synthesized, in their book Lean Thinking, 5 Lean principles that can be summarized in the following process:

key steps of lean
  • Identify what is value for the customer: Focus on the customer’s needs and generate products and services that really add value.
  • Map the value flow: Analyze the entire value chain and optimize the system to satisfy demand just in time (at the moment, in the place, and the quantity and quality that the customer demands). Don’t do this from behind your desk; visit the Gemba (the place where things happen).
  • Make the process more flexible and dynamic: Promote flow, act quickly to anticipate your competitors, and make small improvements to the product constantly. Remember that keeping the product moving brings waste to the surface.
  • Pull value by client demand: Eliminating waste and preventing errors are only secondary goals, which should always come after understanding the customer and what it is that does not represent value to him, and is produced when he/she needs it.
  • Pursue perfection: Seek continuous improvement and constantly make quick improvements. Analyze the waste and find opportunities that can become quick wins.Last but not least, promote a culture in which all employees continually seek to improve their skills, competencies, and processes. Leadership and teamwork are essential.

Agile: do things “the best way”

  Unlike Lean, which has its origins in the manufacturing industry, the Agile methodology was designed for dynamic software development. It proposes working on intermediate products, which will gradually become a final product, based on a short-cycle process with incremental iterations. While Lean already proposed experimentation as a part of continuous improvement, Agile makes it even more explicit and accepts error as a fundamental part of learning. In the Agile mindset, making mistakes is not only acceptable but unavoidable, and should better happen as soon as possible in order to change and improve. The key is the ability to react and adapt quickly. Like Lean, Agile focuses on value and doing things for and because of the customer, but goes one step further by incorporating the customer into the learning process. The client is part of the development process and gives constant feedback on the progress. Understanding the customer first-hand and anticipating his/her not yet expressed needs is the key to achieving a true competitive advantage. On the other hand, the agile approach questions pyramidal hierarchies and working in silos, and recommends working instead in an interactive network of co-located and autonomous teams. Collaboration within teams and relationships between areas, together with a constant review of ways of working, facilitate motivation, agility, and capacity for innovation.

Lean already proposed a team management style based on the concepts of respect and participation of all collaborators and the generation of structures marked by value flows. Agile inherit these values ​​and adds dynamics that reinforce the constant review and permanent improvement of the ways of working.

Agile versus Lean infographic comparison

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Lean + Agile: do the best in the best way

  As we saw earlier, what unites Lean and Agile is more than what separates them. Both approaches put the client in the center and propose iterative learning, which Lean introduced with the Kata of improvement, and Agile promotes through short development cycles. Although Agile was initially designed for software development, it is not as a methodology as a mindset and a cultural change that can be applied to any industry or type of organization to achieve a true competitive advantage. It is not about marketing our product first or launching only with the best product, but about launching the best possible product at the right time (meaning, giving the best value we can offer to the client when they require it). Good news is you don’t need to choose an Agile or Lean approach. Combining a culture of continuous improvement with an agile way of working, always focused on the customer, can enhance the agile development of improvements. How to combine Agile and Lean?

  • Incorporate the Client and the key Stakeholders in the development validation instances of the deliverable of each Sprint.
  • Promote review instances based on MLPs (minimum learning pieces), in which to evaluate what has been learned, the ways of working, what has been learned at this stage, and what we can improve for the future.
Example of minimal learning pieces

Example of MLP

  • Work in shorter development cycles (Sprints) that help you bring better results in less time. Use the improvement Kata proposed by Lean to work with short-term objectives that allow you to analyze the learnings of each stage, project improvements for the next, and learn iteratively. Download your guide “Kata. Systematic improvement and evolution ” here.
  • Focus on the continuous improvement of project management, and consider agility as a Methodology for Project Management, and not only for the development of a product or service.


  Lean Manufacturing emerged in a context where demand was predictable, variability low, and production volume high. Today this is no longer the rule, but the exception. The Agile methodology was built on the core ideas of Lean but rethought them in order to apply them to unpredictable environments. This is why it is especially useful when you need to transform an organization’s ability to respond with speed to change. However, you cannot focus on being agile and lose sight of the true objective, which is continuous improvement. Nor can you lose agility by validating the improvements before exposing them to the client. An approach that combines both methodologies will help:

  • ensure a rapid response to customer and business needs
  • reduce risk, thanks to iterations and incremental deliveries
  • work on culture, change management, and generate capacity for change
  • strengthen the focus on collaboration and permanent interaction
  • encourage innovation and constant development of new products and improvements

  The challenge is to adapt Lean to a context of uncertainty and permanent transformation, learn with agility, and put the focus on continuous improvement, always with the client in the center.

Author: Martín Molteni

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