In the project management world, Lean and Agile are two popular methods that help teams deliver faster and more sustainable results. These two methods have many differences and similarities, which is why the distinctions between them are often unclear. Even the terms are often used in the wrong manner as synonyms that denote a certain set of practices and principles. The confusion arises from the fact that the goals of Lean Agile often overlap – they both aim to value individuals (and their contributions) and eliminate inefficiencies.
It is essential to understand the differences between Agile and Lean methodology to obtain an efficient, effective organization and guarantee the correct application.
What is the Lean Methodology?
Lean methodology is used to optimize an organization’s current processes. This philosophy is inspired by Toyota system practices and is characterized by a structure where there’s an attempt to minimize waste and risk, while maximizing customer value. In this strategy, you regularly ask your employees about different parts of a process that needs improvement and attention, prioritizing changes and continuously working on becoming more efficient.
Lean means without waste or excess, and it should use tools to combat the wastes that reduce productivity and bring inefficiency in companies. These wastes include:
- Excess production
- Excess inventory
- Unused talent
- Unnecessary processing
The term Lean has become the adjective to describe startup companies that build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and improve it gradually. Also, Lean can be perfectly applied across different business areas and is the foundation of Agile.
What is Agile Methodology?
Agile is an iterative methodology focused on the time that makes it takes to develop and build a new product incrementally (delivering it in smaller pieces, step by step). In essence, Agile is about building better products (specifically digital products). The Agile manifesto was published in 2001 in the form of a set of essential Agile principles. It became popular as an alternative to the waterfall project approach of building software, which required a great amount of analysis, planning, and bureaucracy to take place before a project could even start.
Since then, Agile has evolved into a dense network of techniques and frameworks that focus on making processes more flexible and capable of adapting to change rapidly. All steps are structured in a much simpler way, and a system of prioritization of what will be delivered is adopted. Development teams working in Agile have a smaller number of members and have more autonomy in their work. Also, integration is a critical step in Agile because it enables problem resolution and facilitates information exchange with agility.
Because Agile has an implicit focus on people, and the Agile community has had a growing emphasis on mindset and culture, new ways are being found to apply it even to non-digital services or products.
Misconceptions about Lean and Agile
Both strategies are often misunderstood. People believe that these are quick practices that don’t focus on analyzing long-term outcomes and goals, which is entirely false. For example, a startup that uses the Lean strategy should still have a clear vision of where they will be in a few years. Furthermore, they should not start building an application without doing any preparation (including finding out whether there are people who will want their product). That can be tested with various marketing experiments and can still be considered an MVP. No company can be lean on its vision because the vision and values define a company’s core existence.
As for the Agile strategy, it is perceived as an excuse for not having any process. Whatever the company leaders have in mind, the team just starts building without any planning, testing, scoping, analyzing, and other necessary steps. This approach can never work because it leads to a lot of bad decisions, miscommunication, and misunderstanding.
Since Lean is at Agile’s foundation, many practices and principles from both strategies are similar and overlap. One of the reasons behind bad products is a flawed process, meaning that Lean practices and principles are relevant in Agile environments, such as software development. Deferring commitment, improving lead, reducing variability, and continuous improvement makes sense even in Agile contexts. Lean strives to strengthen the very process that delivers the product, while Agile seeks to improve the product itself.
Lean vs Agile – The Differences
- Agile vs Lean methodologies
First and foremost, this is the most significant difference between Agile and Lean methodologies. The Lean methodology is concerned with optimizing the production process by eliminating waste and minimizing risk. As you remove everything that doesn’t contribute to a project’s outcome, the production process automatically becomes efficient and shortens.
As for the Agile methodology, it is concerned with optimizing the project’s development process by making it adaptable, transparent, and flexible. Namely, Agile methodology prioritizes happy customers and continuous improvement. Therefore, the Agile team actively involves the customer (from beginning to end), and an Agile project goes through sprints (iterative development cycles).
- Approach to iteration and speed
The goal of Agile is to deliver fully-developed and working software as quickly as possible. Frequent product delivery allows project teams to utilize customer feedback rather rapidly and make changes to their work. This principle is similar to the Lean principle of Deliver Fast – the quicker a product team can deliver value to customers, the sooner they can collect feedback and learn from it. The difference is that in Agile, development teams focus on small batch sizes to deliver quickly, whereas in Lean, teams manage their flow (by limiting work-in-progress) to increase speed.
- Differences in Agile vs Lean teams
The Lean and Agile strategies involve different types of project teams:
- Lean product team. In this type of project management, organizations form multiple project teams that consist of members from relevant departments. Each team has its team leader who manages individual projects and the team project. Lean team members don’t necessarily have to be cross-functional and self-organized.
- Agile team. An Agile team consists of cross-functional and self-organized individuals. That means that team managers and members are experts in different areas (but work to achieve a common goal), and each team manager decides how to do the work.
- Ways of putting customers first
Both Lean and Agile thinking put customer satisfaction as their primary goal, but they accomplish it using different methods. Lean teams put their customers first by focusing on improving processes in order to to eliminate waste. If a customer wouldn’t pay for a product, it’s waste. In Lean thinking, failing to automate processes, too much work in progress, and context-switching are all considered waste. Lean teams aim to let their customers drive their decision-making, but they also equally prioritize streamlining their processes (as a way of catering to their customers).
As for Agile teams, they accomplish this by focusing on open communication between developers and customers (end-users). Even in the late stages of the development process, Agile’s iterative approach encourages constant feedback and allows for changing requirements.
- Differences in Agile vs Lean areas of focus
When it comes to the focus area in a Lean software development process, it’s all about improving process quality and flow. The goal is to have zero defects, which is typically achieved with value stream mapping – a method used to visualize the series of processes between product creation and delivery to the end-user (customer).
The Agile development cycle strategy focuses on customer value and project scope. The scope of a software product refers to its functionalities and features, while customer value is prioritized as you take feedback (at the end of each sprint) and implement the necessary changes in the next cycle.
- Project timeline differences
Project timelines in Lean Agile methods are different, despite both aiming to deliver the finished product as quickly and early as possible. Lean teams optimize their process flow to shorten the project timeline, usually by limiting their “work in progresses” status. But unlike Agile teams, Lean teams don’t have a specified time frame. The Lean software development model aims to introduce small incremental changes within the production process. It can shorten the development cycles, but that’s not the primary focus of Lean.
On the other hand, an Agile Scrum master or Agile Scrum team works in short cycles (sprints) to deliver the product, where each sprint or cycle usually lasts 2-4 weeks. The incremental and iterative method refers to the breakdown of a project into phases, with each phase being composed of planning, implementation, testing, and evaluation. The entire Sgile development cycle is repeated until the product is finished.
Ultimately, Lean and Agile development methods strive to achieve different goals. The main objective of the Lean manufacturing model is to eliminate all the processes that don’t add value to their product development. In Agile projects, the goal is to create a product that complies with the stakeholder or end-user requirements.
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