Agile vs. Lean

I often come across the question “Whats the difference between agile and lean, and how are they similar”. Big question!
There is an ongoing debate on the relationship of lean and agile methods and philosophies. Lean arose from Japanese production and is based on the two ‘pillars’ of continuous improvement and respect for people. It aims for elimination of waste, continuous, even flow and constant learning and striving for perfection (read innovation here). Agile arose from software development and focuses on emergent design, incremental delivery and continuous and disciplined planning. While lean has been highly developed for repeatable production tasks according to a preconceived design, it has also proved highly effective in development tasks where it aims to ‘outlearn the competition’. Agile has been used in development to create new designs and, as the name suggests, is specifically about change rather than repeatability.
These quite different lineages have been used to justify the stance that lean and agile are quite different approaches, and that even though Lean is now being applied to software development, they are mutually exclusive:
Kent Beck – “The values, principles, and practices of the two approaches are different, even though complementary.”
A contrary view is, however, emerging. Mary Poppendeick reflects the view that agile methods are an implementation of the lean philosophy in software development. Her seminal book “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit” which first defined the lean approach to software development, reflects this in its title. This view is described well by Dean Leffingwell:
“I’ve been struck again and again by common principles – not just like principles or complementary principles – but virtually identical, fundamental, and immutable principles that provide the cornerstone values and philosophies of both lean and agile approaches. I’ve become more and more convinced that agile is a software instance of lean– purpose built for the unique challenges, intangibles and thought-based work of developing software as fast as efficiently as possible – but as lean as lean can be in that context.”
As this debate develops I hope to write a series of blogs exploring the issues and the debate, and do some ‘future-gazing’ as to how the emergence of lean will influence the evolution of agile development.

Agile Magic

With several companies I’ve worked with, agile has been seen as a silver bullet to solve problems of late delivery, bad quality and high cost. But agile is more than a set of practices – its a system of values and principles that need commitment and resources to bring success. Senior management will often say “this team is agile” just because they read the book, have daily stand ups and use words like sprint, iteration and user story. But this has been likened to a cargo cult, where performing agile ‘ceremonies’ are somehow construed as bringing benefits of a true agile implementation. Perhaps this is another aspect of the ‘illusion of control’ invoked by detailed planning and scheduling of projects in waterfall methods. And like the damage such illusion did to waterfall, blind belief in a sprinkling of agile magic dust can prove to be a major setback for true agile adoption.

Invisible Work

Agile practices such as test driven or test first development, continuous integration, refactoring and automated builds are generally invisible to the customer. Work on these doesn’t deliver any features or, it first seems, value. But these are essential to the longer-term quality of the product, the ability to frequently deliver working increments, etc. Activities like integration have to happen at some stage – taking this pain early in the project gives much better predictability for the remaining deliverables. Customers need to be educated up-front about the benefits of these practices – trying to ‘hide’ them, as I’ve seen teams do, only leads to mistrust.