What is Lean/Agile anyway?

Lean, agile, lean-agile — wait are we talking about athletes? While these terms might apply to how healthy your ground beef is or how good your team’s quarterback is at getting out of jams, nowadays its become a staple in business practices. Sometimes people confuse these concepts or use them interchangeably so I am going to attempt to address that here.

These terms have become more and more common across all industries, however, it has its roots in a car manufacturing company: Toyota. In the mid 20th century, Toyota needed a way to tailor their factories to their needs and the needs of their customers. They had different goals than that of the mass production car companies in the United States. The philosophy was essentially focused on decreasing waste and improving efficiency and quality in a timely manner.

The term ‘lean’ wasn't actually introduced until 1991 in the book The Machine that Changed the World. The authors (Womack and Jones) studied Toyota and their practices and advised that businesses should focus on three things if they wanted to implement their philosophy

  • Purpose- What customer problems will the company solve?
  • Process- How will the company assess each major value stream to make sure each step is valuable, capable, available, adequate, and flexible?
  • People- Can the company ensure that for every important process, someone is continually evaluating it in terms of business purpose and lean process? How can everyone touching the value stream be actively engaged in operating it correctly and continually improving it?

So where does agile come in?

The origins of agile are debatable, however, it was inspired by lean and adapted to the software development industry. Agile focuses on being flexible, delivering value quickly and iterating frequently. It’s priority is on satisfying the customer and it welcomes changing requirements, hence, the need to be flexible. People are also central to this principle — people over process.

While Lean strives for sustainability and agile strives to be adaptable, they are more similar than they are different. Both concepts minimize work and process and invite us to measure how much value is delivered. Both improve quality, amplify learning, empower people, and emphasize continuous improvement.

Embracing both Lean and Agile, will help build thriving, innovative and sustainable organizations that consistently deliver customer value.

UX Designer and Food Enthusiast based in NYC