Agile Vs Lean

Agile Vs. Lean: Yeah Yeah, What’s the Difference?

Is Agile the same as Lean? When people say “agile” do they really mean Scrum? Or do people still use different types of agile – and if so, why?

Been getting a lot of questions lately, so thought I’d take a stab at this…


Lean comes from Lean Manufacturing and is a set of principles for achieving quality, speed & customer alignment (same as what we’re trying to do with agile development, right?).

Mary & Tom Poppendieck adapted the principles from Lean Manufacturing to fit software development and I believe these ideas actually provide the premises behind why agile works:

  1. Eliminate Waste
  2. Build Quality In
  3. Create Knowledge
  4. Defer Commitment
  1. Deliver Fast
  2. Respect People
  3. Optimize the Whole

In a nutshell, Lean says to relentlessly eliminate anything that isn’t adding value and only work on what we absolutely need to be doing at this moment in time. Eliminating waste means eliminating useless meetings, tasks and documentation. But it also means eliminating time spent building what “we know” we’ll need in the future (things are constantly changing so we often end up not needing them – or if we do, we have to rework them because conditions and our understanding has changed by then). It also means eliminating inefficient ways of working – like multitasking (!) – so we can deliver fast.

Lean also puts a very strong emphasis on what it calls “the system” – that is, the way that the team operates as a whole. We always need to be looking at our work from a top level to ensure we’re optimizing for the whole. For example, many managers want to “optimize” individual developers by ensuring they’re always at 100% – but most of the time, this is actually counter-productive. Let’s not have people coding something that isn’t needed (or fully defined yet) just for the sake of coding, because that actually creates more work for us in the future (see: Why You Should Let Your Developers Surf).

Along those lines, Lean says to respect that the people doing the work are the ones that best know how to do it. Give them what they need to be effective and then trust them to do it. Software development is about learning, so structure the work to ensure we’re continuously learning. And because of that, defer decisions until the last responsible moment (because we’ll know more by then). Finally, develop in a way that builds quality into our product, because there’s no way to continuously deliver fast if we have to keep going back to clean up our messes.

Organizations that are truly lean have a strong competitive advantage because they respond very rapidly and in a highly disciplined manner to market demand, rather than try to predict the future.

Mary Poppendieck


Agile refers to a set of values and principles put forth in the Agile Manifesto. The Manifesto was a reaction against heavyweight methodologies that were popular, yet crippling software projects from actually doing what they needed to do – create software that helped the customer! I believe Agile’s values & principles work because of the science behind Lean and so you’ll see a lot of similar themes repeated in agile.

The Agile Manifesto’s values are:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

And it’s principles are:

  1. Highest priority is customer satisfaction
  2. Welcome changing requirements
  3. Frequent delivery of software
  4. Business people & developers cooperating daily
  5. Build projects around motivated people
  6. Face-to-face conversation is best
  1. Progress measured by working software
  2. Sustainable development pace
  3. Continuous attention to technical excellence
  4. Simplicity
  5. Self-organizing teams
  6. Regular reflection & adaptation.

Any project that follows these values and principles can rightly be considered to be agile. That said, there are definitely preferred practices that are common for agile teams to follow in order to achieve agility. Most commonly:

  • Scrum or Kanban (or a hybrid of the two) for “Management Practices”
  • Extreme Programming (XP) for Technical Practices (with new practices becoming popular, largely from Lean Startup – such as Continuous Deployment and Testing in Production)

A good agile team picks and choses the management & technical practices that best work for them. (a bad one just picks a couple of practices and falsely believes that somehow “makes them agile” – see: Are We Agile Yet?).

In Part II, I’ll post summaries of these agile methods and practices.


67 responses to “Agile Vs. Lean: Yeah Yeah, What’s the Difference?”

  1. Lean Startup Machine Avatar
    Lean Startup Machine

    Agile Vs. Lean: Yeah Yeah, What’s the Difference?< Great post Abby, thx for mentoring #LSMBoston !

  2. Abby, this is very timely for the Lean and Agile things I’m doing at work, thanks. The OTHER thing we’re doing at work is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. Not sure how much you’ve heard about it. It has some fundamental challenges with agile principles, but is very well aligned with Lean. Your post is particularly interesting because it shows how ROWE may be combined with Agile and Lean. I’d like to talk about this stuff in person, so will come to the Lean meetup on Thursday and say hello. See you there!

    Jon Schwartz

  3. you might like this talk from Joshua Kerievsky, well known in the XP community, on Agile vs Lean

  4. CuriousityForLife Avatar

    I have always been wondering what they really mean when they say Agile Vs. Lean. This sure helps a lot. I won’t be the unknowing kid on the block anymore for sure!

    <a href="">wd my book live

  5. Nícolas Iensen Avatar
    Nícolas Iensen

    Well done! Agile != Lean, but very close concepts

  6. Your post is excellent! Thanks, Abby!

    Agile and Lean are so interwoven and an adage, but it surprising that as adults we get so convoluted about everything. I recollect the words of my physical education teacher who yelled at us that we have to be lean to be agile and both to win:)

    The key takeaway for me is the customer feedback loop as this single entity dictates almost everything we do in the market.

  7. Your post is excellent! Thanks, Abby!

    Agile and Lean are so interwoven and an adage, but it surprising that as adults we get so convoluted about everything:) I recollect the words of my physical education teacher who yelled at us that we have to be lean to be agile.

    The key takeaway for me is the customer feedback loop as this single entity dictates almost everything we do in the market.

  8. Great post, Abby! Really helps draw the line in the sand between “agile” and “lean”. Thanks to you, got the vocab straight. Cheers!

  9. Bluepen Software Avatar
    Bluepen Software

    This is one of the best short summary articles we came across to find more precisely what would be the best difference between Agile and Lean. Lean is more closely related to producing Minimum Viable Product. – Bluepen Software.

    1. Thank you, Bluepen. I really appreciate it

      1. Bluepen Software Avatar
        Bluepen Software

        We are big believers in Agile methodologies of development software products and services. This article definitely helped us understand some concepts on Lean….

  10. A must read article for project managers.

  11. Tushar Likhar Avatar
    Tushar Likhar

    good article

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