Understanding the Relationship Between Lean and Agile Development

Agile and Lean are wildly popularized in the software development space for helping teams deliver faster and more sustainably. By reviewing data associated with last year’s Lean Business Report, we found that most teams practicing Lean and Agile don’t have a clear understanding of the differences or similarities between the two methodologies. Often, the terms are used synonymously to describe a particular set of practices. So are you Lean? Are you Agile? Can you be both -- or are they at odds?

The simple answer is this: Agile development is a process for rapid software delivery that is connected to many Lean principles. Read this post to learn more about the important connection between Lean and Agile development.

How Lean Principles Connect to Agile Development

Agile development can refer to any development method that aligns with the concepts outlined in the Agile Manifesto. This foundational document was written by a group of 14 influencers in the software industry, who met to reflect upon which existing methods did and did not work for software development.

The Agile Manifesto has guided the practice of Agile in software development. The resulting practice, known as Agile software development (or simply Agile), utilizes three primary concepts: an iterative approach to development, short feedback loops, and a disciplined project management process. Here’s how each of these concepts are rooted in Lean principles.

Iterative Development

In Agile software development, teams apply an iterative approach to software delivery. Working software is delivered as quickly as possible, rather than in large batches. Frequent deployment of code allows teams practicing Agile to quickly receive feedback from customers and use it to influence their upcoming work. This also allows teams to incorporate changing requirements, even late in the development process.

Lean Connection: Deliver Fast and Defer Commitment

Iterative development aligns with the Lean principles of Deliver Fast and Defer Commitment. Lean encourages teams to deliver fast by managing flow -- limiting the amount of WIP (work-in-process) to reduce context switching and improve focus. Agile teams manage flow by working in cross-functional teams on delivering one iteration at a time.

The Lean principle of Defer Commitment says that Lean organizations should function as just-in-time systems, waiting until the last responsible moment to make decisions. This allows Lean organizations to have the agility to make informed decisions, with the most relevant, up-to-date information available.

Short Feedback Loops

Short feedback loops ensure that teams are spending time on work that meets the most up-to-date business requirements. One of the principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto insists on close, daily cooperation between business stakeholders people and developers. This enables teams to prioritize and complete work based on company goals, eliminating anything that is not valuable to the customer.

Lean Connection: Eliminate Waste

Lean thinking encourages this definition of waste: If a customer wouldn’t pay for it, it’s waste. Short feedback loops between Agile developers and their stakeholders help teams create a habit of eliminating processes, activities, and products that do not directly result in customer value.

Disciplined Project Management Process

Agile methods rely on a disciplined project management process that encourages frequent review and adaptation. This structured approach allows software development teams to focus on completing high-quality, high-value work as quickly as possible, and then gain valuable insights after each release. At the end of each iteration, teams systematically review opportunities for improvement based on feedback from stakeholders.

Lean Connection: Build Quality In

A disciplined process allows teams to practice the Lean principle of Build Quality In. The concept is fairly simple: Automate and standardize any tedious, repeatable process, or any process that is prone to human error. This principle allows Lean teams to error-proof significant portions of their processes, so they can focus their energy on creating value for their customers. Relying on a consistent, disciplined process allows Agile teams to continuously refine and optimize their processes for value delivery.

Lean and Agile Development

Agile allows software development teams to move faster, deliver higher quality work, and stay aligned with business stakeholders around customer needs. There are many ways to apply Agile methodologies, including Kanban, Scrum, XP, and more.

Regardless of which approach your team chooses uses, it’s important to understand the principles behind the method in order to ensure a sustainable, disciplined practice. If your team is practicing Agile, but is unfamiliar with Lean principles, take some time to review the educational resources below.

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