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Over the past few years, Agile has gained popularity. This methodology emerged as a solution to manage projects with a number of unknown elements and to counter the typical waterfall method. Quality practitioners have observed the numerous similarities between this new framework and Lean. Some have speculated that Agile is simply the next generation’s version of Lean. These observations have posed the question:
Is Agile the new Lean?
Members of ASQ Influential Voices shared their thoughts:
I’ve worked with both Agile and Lean in my career. To me, asking if Agile is the new Lean is a little like asking if carpentry is the new plumbing. They are different trades, used for different purposes. Agile is a methodology of designing and developing products, and Lean is a methodology for streamlining operations. I worked at a company that transitioned from a traditional waterfall approach for design requirements, to an Agile method. What struck me most was the dramatic increase in the sense of urgency. It’s hard to get excited about a deadline that is 8 months away – 8 days feels much more real.
Lean is an approach to operations that focusses on flow. Identifying and eliminating barriers that stop flow, and implementing quick and easy solutions now vs. expensive and capital-intensive solutions. With software development, where Agile is most commonly applied, the hardest part is making the first release. Once you have the final release, it’s simply a matter of copying. Whereas with hardware development, the hardest part is not making the first prototype, it’s getting to mass production: being able to produce your design consistently, efficiently and cost-effectively. These are very different challenges that require different solutions. Agile, vs. Lean.
No, Agile is not the new Lean.
There are many useful concepts, tools and practices within what people refer to as agile software development. And the same can be said for lean. But they are distinct approaches (the links in this post flush out this idea more for those interested in learning more on that topic). That isn’t to say an organization cannot design their own solution that adopts ideas found in each approach. In fact doing so for software development makes sense in my opinion.
If you decide to transform your management system using lean management practices as a focus I think you can do great things. I would delve deeply into lean and also learn about Deming and agile software development. And if you decide to create an agile styled management system then do that and learn from Deming and lean as you continually improve. In either case continually iterate and improve they management practices that are used.
The short answer to this question is: NO.
The longer answer is one I’m going to have to hold back some emotions to answer. Why? I have two reasons.
Reason #1: There is No Magic Bullet
First, many managers are on a quest for the silver bullet — a methodology or a tool that they can implement on Monday, and reap benefits no later than Friday. Neither lean nor agile can make this happen. But it’s not uncommon to see organizations try this approach. A workgroup will set up a Kanban board or start doing daily stand-up meetings, and then talk about how they’re “doing agile.” Now that agile is in place, these teams have no reason to go any further.
Reason #2: There is Nothing New Under the Sun
Neither approach is “new” and neither is going away. Lean principles have been around since Toyota pioneered its production system in the 1960s and 1970s. The methods prioritized value and flow, with attention to reducing all types of waste everywhere in the organization. Agile emerged in the 1990s for software development, as a response to waterfall methods that couldn’t respond effectively to changes in customer requirements.
Agile modeling uses some lean principles: for example, why spend hours documenting flow charts in Visio, when you can just write one on a whiteboard, take a photo, and paste it into your documentation? Agile doesn’t have to be perfectly lean, though. It’s acceptable to introduce elements that might seem like waste into processes, as long as you maintain your ability to quickly respond to new information and changes required by customers. (For example, maybe you need to touch base with your customers several times a week. This extra time and effort is OK in agile if it helps you achieve your customer-facing goals.)Both lean and agile are practices. They require discipline, time, and monitoring. Teams must continually hone their practice, and learn about each other as they learn together. There are no magic bullets.
Information plays a key role. Effective flow of information from strategy to action is important for lean because confusion (or incomplete communication) and forms of waste. Agile also emphasizes high-value information flows, but for slightly different purposes — that include promoting:
- Rapid understanding
- Rapid response
- Rapid, targeted, and effective action
Companies nowadays are no longer focusing on standardizing and ensuring quality. Quality is no longer value-added, is required. Lean and six sigma implementations are falling short, not because of quality issues, but because employees are not engaged enough to change. Unhappy employees equal unhappy customers. Now what, is agile the new lean?
Lean and six sigma process improvement approaches started in the auto industry and manufacturing in the ‘50s, and were successfully applied to other industries. Nevertheless, the software industry that grew significantly during the ‘90s realized that these quality practices were not fast enough. They needed to iterate faster to innovate faster. Being the customer favorite became a survival need, and they couldn’t do it without the ideas of their employees. Millennials in their workplace started asking for different ways of working. That’s how a group of IT experts developed the Agile Thinking Manifesto in 2001. They applied lean principles and tools to reduce waste and combined them with other idea generation tools and team enablers to bring innovation to the workplace more easily.
While lean provides a set of methods like 5S, kanban, just in time, agile is a cultural mindset, a way of thinking about how an organization should work. As Stephen says in his book The Era of Agile “in any particular organization, the practices that emerge will be the result of an interaction between the agile mindset and the specific organizational context”, which may include lean practices. So it is not “either agile or lean”, you can be both. For example, when I implement 5S, I always include in the training an introduction to an agile “we culture” mindset, so that team members can understand the true purpose behind the implementation.