Lean and Agile, or Lean vs. Agile? (hint: depends on why you ask)

When you've been through a Lean Transformation, you have probably started thinking about how technology fits into all of this.  I have been asked to speak on this subject several times, but reason organization ask for a session can be quite different.   One of the most common asks is very general, along the lines of "Can you come in and explain to our organization what the difference is between Lean and Agile?"   Below is a look look at some of the underlying questions that organizations face with regard to Lean and Agile Transformation, taking Lean into Technology Organizations, or communication between practitioners of "Lean" and practitioners of "Agile".

  • We use Huddle Boards, they have Stand-ups - can't we all just use the same tools and aren't the the same thing anyway?
  • Why won't technology understand the concept of standard work?
  • Agile looks a lot like Lean, so why is this a separate effort?
  • Lean is so much more powerful and proven valuable, why aren't is our company leveraging Lean more?

On a principle level, there is no difference between Lean and Agile.  Both are about leveraging data, respecting people, problem solving, and continuous improvement and both grew out of Lean Manufacturing (yep, Agile did too).  For years, Lean was used for problem solving in Manufacturing, whereas Technologists started leveraging Lean thinking to solve the much more constrained problem set of early and frequent delivery of valuable software.  Fair enough.  Right?  Not really.

Depending on how your Lean Implementation went and how any Agile Transformation is going, both your Lean and Agile work may get stuck at the team level.  Setting up in cross-functional teams saves time, people like it, and work is proven to get done faster, but it can also results in Lean teams (on the business side) and Agile teams (within technology) working separately, not having of view of why they exist.  We then choose a tool set,  a structure, a process, roles.  We stop at one M (in Lean terms), or SCRUM/Kanban teams (in Agile).  

If change efforts (whether Lean or Agile) are not rooted in delivering on Strategic BUSINESS Imperatives,  then expect to bogged down in roles, org structure, HR issues, and language wars.  Both Lean and Agile are both a means to an end and that end is the success of the company.  A well articulated and implementable strategy with success measures (KPI's, yes) allows your people to be principles based, success driven and enables employees to organize, collaborate, and prioritize to deliver to strategic goals - the results will be both lean and agile.