Agile and Lean, is it really different?

Agile principles are increasingly used in information technology (IT). Convinced of the value of the approach, IT invites its business partners, the operational sectors, to work in Agile mode. Operational excellence in operations is often called « Lean ».

Many are concerned about the addition of a new methodology. This is not the case. These two concepts are very similar.

Lean, also known as the Toyota way, formalizes the principles of continuous improvement and aims at operational excellence. InitiInitially created for automotive factories, Lean is now applied in all industrial sectors, in hospitals, in call centers, to name a few examples described in this blog.

Agile is a more recent methodology. Formalized in the Agile Manifesto, the term and the principles were thought up by a group of 17 developers. Their goal was to find an alternative to the cumbersome, documentation-driven software development processes of the time.

Agile and Lean are two philosophies, which guide the execution of work. They are based on general principles. Implementation using methodology is at the discretion of each team. It is important to distinguish between the two. A methodology or tool provides results that can be positive or negative depending on the philosophy and principles that guide its implementation.

I have identified six keys to success that these two philosophies share.

Value according to customer

In both cases, the goal is to create value for the client. She is at the heart of both philosophies. The customer has a need, she wants a product, a service or a software that meets her need. The organization must therefore meet this need. The goal is not to make the best product or software, but to make the one she needs.

It may sound obvious to you, but in real life we are often far from this objective. Many specialists think they know what to do. These experts are not interested in their clients and do not necessarily listen to them. I’ve already written about how to put the client at the heart of your work.

Continuous improvements

By proceeding by trial and error, with small steps, Lean and Agile are constantly looking to improve their product, service or software. In software development, it is the search for Simplicity. For production it is the stability of the process. In both cases, we try a minor adjustment, if it works, we continue, otherwise, we try in another direction.

Error is allowed and even favoured, as it is a source of learning. The work environment encourages experimentation and gives space to try new things.

A pulled flow

In Agile mode, the team frequently delivers features prioritized by the customer. In Lean mode, the team delivers the products requested by the customer, just in time. We are in a pull process: production is launched at the pace of customer demand.

In traditional organizations, flow is pushed: the organisation provides what it has decided. The customer chooses from what is available. He has no say on prioritization of production.

Dedicated and cross-functional teams

All organizations face “silo” issues. I think it’s human not to be able to work with 150 people. Everyone prefers a group of about ten or twenty people. In an organization by business lines, strong links are thus created in each business line. The teams then defend their business or sector more than the customer or the product.

In Agile or Lean mode, the teams, permanent or temporary, work together and are organized by product. The members then create a strong bond around this product. Silos fall away in favor of the product.

Of course, nothing is perfect. And you can then have “competition” between the different teams, around their respective products.

Those who do are those who know

Lean and Agile managers must learn to trust, let go and give decision-making power. This is the opposite of Taylorism, in which specialists tell employees how to work.

In both Lean and Agile, people know how to do things. First of all, you have to show them the direction to go, the objectives to reach. Then the teams organize themselves to achieve the result. Intrinsic motivation increases individual and overall performance.

Field workers are often invited to participate, along with the experts. Their voice counts as much, if not more, because they know how it works in the real world.

Questioning how we do things

Finally, Agile and Lean never rest on their successes. At each end of the cycle, they question themselves and ask how the team could have done better. Whether in the phase “check-act” of the PDCA cycle, or the Scrum retrospective, the teams decide which methods or behaviours change to be even more performing.

Perfection does not exist, but both approaches improve both the product and the way they do the work.

Agile, Lean, Scrum and Six Sigma

What about Six Sigma? It is a methodology, just like the Scrum in Agile, which accurately describes the steps and organization to achieve specific goals.

Depending on the situation and the objectives, we will use the Six Sigma, Kaizen, Scrum or Design Thinking methodology. When you master them, you can use the best of each methodology with your own approach.

The most important thing is to understand the concepts and why the methodology proposes certain things. Then you’ll apply what you need in your context.