What's After Lean?

February 28, 2009 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Net Objectives Support Group (LinkedIn).

Over the last 20 years we’ve seen quite a lot process and technology come to the forefront: object-orientation, design patterns, extreme programming, Scrum, Agile, Lean to mention a few. While I don’t believe any of these are fads, one has to wonder what’ll be next? At Net Objectives we’ve had a history of embracing new methods as we’re always looking for new ways to help our customers. Given so many different things have come to the forefront, it’s natural to ask – “what’s next?” I actually did this myself a few months ago, in particular, what will come after Lean?

My answer may surprise you – it surprised me! And that is, probably not anything significant. At least not for the next several decades. Some people would say that’s just because I’m just infatuated with Lean and when that wears off I’ll be on to something else. In some ways I can’t blame them. After all, as CEO of Net Objectives I’ve built a reputation as embracing one new technology after another (remember that list at the start of the blog?). However, I have not abandoned anything just because I’ve embraced something new. The more experience I get (a euphemism for older) the more I learn I have more to learn. I may be more vocal about Lean now but that is only because there is not as much need to be vocal about the other things.

But why do I think Lean will be at the forefront for another few decades? To understand this, one has to understand what I mean Lean to be. Most people fall into two types of thinking about Lean today. Many equate Lean to Toyota and many others equate it to a set of tools to reduce waste. Not that these two camps are in any form of competition or saying one is better than another.

I believe I am in a third camp – along with, I am sure, many others. When I started learning Lean, I equated it to an extension of Deming’s methods that I had learned in the 80's. The more one studies Lean and sees how it can be useful, the more one realizes that Lean includes a framework which embraces many thought processes to solve many different kinds of problems. But it isn’t just a hodgepodge of different thought processes. It is based on a few fundamental concepts and principles on which other things can build and extend. The foundational thinking is Deming’s view (overly simplified as respect people and most errors are of a systemic nature) extended by Toyota with their focus on Just-In-Time (JIT) and autonomation. JIT is based on the realization that better results are achieved when one looks at the cycle time of a process (i.e., the time from the idea until its creation and subsequent consumption) instead of the efficiency or production levels of the process at each step of the way. This is the major difference between mass-production and Lean-Production. It is a thought process that can be applied anywhere. Autonomation (“automation with a human touch”) means that things are automated (thereby running as efficiently as possible) with human oversight for when something goes wrong.

One of the powers of Lean is its ability to absorb other concepts and bodies of knowledge into its own framework. For example, utilization theory was more or less created in the early 20th century. But many people would consider utilization theory to be an integral part of Lean today. Why? Because it is consistent with Lean tenets and has been used to help implement JIT and fast-flexible-flow. In other words, while utilization theory was created outside of Lean, I would now consider it to be part of Lean. In this way we can consider Lean to be a true scientific approach to learning how to solve problems.

An example of this in Lean Software Development is continuous integration. Continuous integration has been around for quite some time and I would not consider it to have been invented by Lean. However, continuous integration so well manifests Just-in-Time that I, and many other Lean Softies, would now consider it to be an integral part of Lean Software Development. In other words, we don’t care where it came from, we care if it works.

Unlike Scrum’s focus on a thin framework from which to “inspect and adapt” Lean embraces technologies and thought processes which have been shown to be beneficial and which are consistent with its own foundation. While Scrum does do this in a happenstance manner (after 10 years XP style engineering practices are finally being considered necessary for most Scrum teams) there is still a resistance to extending the foundation of Scrum (I point to Ken Schwaber’s comment – “In the Scrum community, we stick with the basic Scrum principles and then support them using better engineering tools, infrastructures, and automated testing capabilities” on his post somewhat explaining why he ex-communicated me from the Scrum Development Yahoo user’s group.

But Lean is much more than just a framework. Lean is a combination of:

  • Foundational Thinking
  • Perspectives
  • Principles
  • Attitudes
  • Knowledge
  • Practices

I’ve created a model of Lean incorporating these ideas you can see at A Model of Lean-Agile Software Development. The most significant aspect of Lean is that is it works on a solid foundational set of beliefs, tells us to look at things we typically haven’t, gives us tools to improve our work and challenges us to continuously improve our methods. Essentially, it gives us a way to think about how to solve a very large range of problems. More importantly, it gives us a set of principles so we can apply this thought process to many different contexts.

The bottom line is that Lean is not a solution or an end but rather a thought process to create solutions. Now it doesn’t do everything, so I’m sure there are a lot of other methods to learn besides Lean. And I’m sure many of these will be absorbed into Lean. But in the Agile community, it is both broader and deeper by an order of magnitude than anything else present now. By broader, I mean it can be used in many different areas. Besides Lean Manufacturing and Lean Product Development we’ve seen Lean move into the service industry and the software industry. The same principles that underlie Lean Manufacturing and Lean Product Development underlie knowledge management at Toyota as well, so it is even broader than it first appears. By deeper, I mean it isn’t just a framework for team thinking but includes a large set of practices and principles to guide those using it.

In my mind Lean also provides a way to provide a balance to the seemingly interminable conflict between management and the teams they manage. For decades we’ve seen a pendulum swing from too much management to not enough. While agile methods are technically not anti-management, they show up that way in many ways – and definitely feel that way to many managers. Lean has been around for over 50 years. It’s based on methods and tools that have been around for about 100 years. It has a long heritage but is growing stronger. It also has principles that work at all levels, the team, the department and the organization. I believe when it rises to the pre-eminent Agile method, it will stay there – because it is a type of thinking that will grow and evolve. So what we see in a few years may not be what we have now, but it’ll still be Lean.

Alan Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives
Achieving Enterprise and Team Agility

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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.


Hi Alan, In regards to 'Whats next' , I think you are right when you say 'not anything significant'. It takes years of shared experiences in the industry to come up with methodologies and principles, create foundations and have them accepted. I would say the likely evolution is the 'off shoot' methodologies which at the end of the day, are the same Agile / Lean methods, with peoples personal spin on them. Kind of like 'Vanilla coke' principles. Regards, David http://www.jacksguides.com

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