Lean vs. Agile: What’s the Difference?

Lean vs. Agile - What's the Difference -

Editor’s Note: Author’s blogs are their own and may not always reflect the views of

As a Certified Scrum Master, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, and PMI-certified Project Manager, I’ve read many articles on Agile vs. Lean, and they tend to focus on an implementation of Agile and of Lean. To take a fundamentally different approach to this norm, this blog will  focus on the essential nature of Agile and Lean. I’ve summarized my approach in the following chart:

Lean and Agile -

Aspect: Obsessed With

Agile Is Obsessed With…

The Agile manifesto is about people. It states that interactions between people and involving the end user are favored over other types of interactions. You can perform a lot of Agile practices, but if you’re not getting your end users involved, then you’re not doing Agile.

Lean Is Obsessed With…

Lean is really about waste. I know that many people will object to this, but in your heart you know I’m right. When you hold a Kaizen Event or do a Gemba Walk, what are you looking for? You’re not looking for new product ideas.

Aspect: Manages

Agile Manages…

Agile was originally developed as a software development methodology by a group of smart people who realized that you don’t really know what the software is going to look like until you build it. They created Agile principles as a way of integrating uncertainty into the product development process. Instead of minimizing uncertainty with detailed requirements and specifications, they created a process by which the customer provides feedback to the team on a predictable timeline.

Lean Manages…

Lean was developed to manage processes, and the ingenious people who created it realized that the best way to understand a process is to go out and look at it and experience it. Then you can manage it.

Aspect: Delivers

Agile Delivers…

The Agile Manifesto states that working software is valued over documentation (it doesn’t say that there is no documentation)! The goal of the development team is to bring something that works to the end user for their feedback.

Lean Delivers…

In Lean, the idea is that the process should deliver the most value. In practice, this means that any step that does not add value in some way, such as meeting an explicit customer requirement, should be eliminated.

Aspect: Applies

Agile Applies…

Agile practitioners attempt to apply principles to the problems they encounter. For example, a project manager or stakeholder may ask an Agile team, “How will you measure progress?” The correct response is “Working software.” There can be other measures, but the one that matters is working software.

Lean Applies…

Lean practitioners apply heuristics. Colloquially, a heuristic is a “rule of thumb.” In Lean, “eliminate waste” is a heuristic approach. Most process issues involve excess movement, excess steps, gold-plating, and so on, and by reducing these steps when you encounter them, you will make a process more efficient. You don’t have to do a full-on Six Sigma study because the Lean heuristic has started you in the right direction.

Aspect: Has the Best Slides

Agile Slides…

Agile slides contain a lot of circles:

Agile Accelerates -

Lean Slides…

Lean slides tend to show rocks:

Lean Rocks -

Aspect: Negative Associations for Agile and Lean

As MBA-program CEOs have misunderstood Agile and Lean, the terms have picked up baggage. Agile is associated with chaotic environments, ruthless management, and cowboy coding. Lean is linked to cost-cutting and layoffs. Both of these are myths.

Aspect: Achilles’ Heel

Agile’s Achilles’ Heel

“Agile-as-religion” occurs when Agilistas refuse to implement Agile in an “impure” state. Agile transformations are journeys of a thousand steps, and the politics will get very messy. The most successful Agile implementations tend to occur when the organization sticks to the principles and is flexible on the practices.

Lean’s Achilles’ Heel

“Lean for Lean’s sake” arises when the process guru applies Lean heuristics without regard for the situation. One example of this is in supply chains, where having a small inventory of a critical part will keep a production line running when delivery is interrupted. Another situation is in services, in which it appears to be more efficient to have a customer deal with an IVR system, but in doing so, the customer perceives a lower-value experience. Zappos is an example of how customer experience can be combined with efficient service.

Practicing Agile and Lean

So what does this mean in practice? As a scrum master, don’t limit yourself to one approach. Go to see the actual process, understand the work, ask questions, and learn  – follow gemba.

I teach teams to start with the retrospective by:

  • Looking at value in our customer’s eyes
  • Encouraging the use of A3-style reports to share knowledge
  • Getting the customer involved directly with the product team

How do you practice Agile and/or Lean? We’d love to learn about your experiences – please comment below!

Todd is a Certified Scrum Master, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, and PMI-certified Project Manager, with over 20 years of experience at large and small technology companies. He has a broad knowledge of software development and specializes in process improvement and the design of secure information systems.

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