What Is Lean-Agile?

December 5, 2017 — Posted by Al Shalloway

This page was moved to here as part of our FLEX (FLow for Enterprise Transformation) site.

Net Objectives FLEX system (FLow for Enterprise Transformation) is guided by Lean-Agile thinking.  There is much misinformation about what Lean is in the software world and even different opinions about what Agile is.  Given that Lean and Agile are integral parts of the FLEX system it important that we have an understanding of what they mean.

What Is Lean?

Although the term Lean was coined to describe Toyota, and to lesser extent Honda, it’s become reasonably synonymous with Toyota’s Production System.  However, we are not only not in manufacturing, we’re not even in the physical world. Software is quite different than both manufacturing and physical world product development.  However, the core of Lean can be found by looking at the mindset Toyota had when they did what later became called Lean.  Given Toyota’s commitment to continuous improvement and learning Lean is not a static definition – but rather an evolution of both understanding and practices to achieve its goals.

In a nutshell, the tenets of Lean are:

  • management must be involved in leading the change
  • we must take a systems-thinking approach
  • we must have a commitment to the quality of both how we are doing the work as well as the quality of the work
  • we must respect people – give them a good environment within which to work but also recognize they may not embrace self-organization immediately
  • make all work visible
  • strive for flow by managing queues and work-in-process (WIP)
  • relentlessly improve
  • drive from achieving the goals of the organization – be clear on the target value being manifested

Given we are not in the physical world we must apply these tenets differently than we would in manufacturing and physical product development.  Visibility and managing WIP have overlapping goals one of which is to see delays (they show up as items in a queue).

Lean, however, is much more than the above.  It is also about creating pride in our work, striving to be the best and personally making a difference.  An example of this is one reason that Toyota builds different cars on the same assembly line – it is to make the work more interesting and to keep people “on their toes.”

What Is Agile?

There are huge differences of opinion here throughout the Agile community. Net Objectives has never subscribed to the common view that the Agile Manifesto, written in 2001, is the one sacrosanct definition. There are two reasons for this.  First, the Agile Manifesto is not based on systems-thinking which we feel is a necessary agreement for organizational change.  The second, after a few years it appeared oxy-moronic to us that a manifesto suggesting we be agile and to accept change is cast in stone.   That being said, there is much to learn from the manifesto.

Where Agile and Lean Have the Same Intentions

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. (Principle 3)

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. (Principle 4)

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. (Principle 5).

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. (Principle 8)

Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential. (Principle 10)

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. (Principle 12)

Where Agile Goes Beyond Lean

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. (Principle 2)

Working software is the primary measure of progress. (Principle 7)

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility. (Principle 9)

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. (Principle 11)

Lean and Agile Are not the Same

Agile was very much influenced by Lean, but not all of Lean was embodied in Agile.  At the time of the manifesto the two most popular methods were Scrum (at the time sometimes considered synonymous with Agile) and eXtreme Programming (which is closer to Lean than Scrum) were inspired by articles written about Lean companies.  Most significantly attended to was Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka’s The New New Product Development Game written in 1986.

It is ironic that the Agile community has Agile reasonably ignored another iconic work by Nonaka Toward Middle-Up-Down Management: Accelerating Information Creation that explicitly discusses the role of (middle) management.  In a nutshell management’s role is to look (up) at the business strategy to be implemented and creating an environment for the people they lead (down) can self-organize in to achieve those goals.  While Agile is not inconsistent with this, the Agile Manifesto does not mention management at any point and even created its own role (the Scrum Master) to take on much of the responsibility that Lean managers do.

The Agile Manifesto is focused around the technology side and the technology side’s purpose of creating and manifesting value.  A focus on customer value is not all a business does, however.  Successful companies have clarity of purpose and a commitment to their employees.  Both of these must be invested in.

Lean-Agile Defined

Lean-Agile is taking the mindset of Lean, applying it to the software world while incorporating the lessons of Agile that are useful.  Lean-Agile is not constrained to the workflows that have software in them.  But then some aspects of Lean-Agile’s guidance must change.

Al Shalloway


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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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