Agile & Lean – Two Complementary Ways of Thinking

Jun 6, 2021 | Agile

Agile and Lean are complementary mindsets because both have value creation for the customer as their primary focus and metric. Both philosophies see people and individuals as the starting point and drivers of value creation. In addition, both philosophies see an atmosphere of willingness to learn in order to gain knowledge and – importantly – to be able to implement it as the key to success. Agile is adaptive, relies on interactions and collaborations between people, is thus close to the needs of the market and can use changes as an opportunity for competitive advantage through rapid response time. Lean takes a systemic view of the organization, identifying value streams in the overall context and striving to align and harmonize all activities with these value streams.

What are the Drivers Behind These Philosophies? What Challenges are Both Trying to Solve?

Agile is the response to complexity through constant change. Agile is the answer to the effectiveness question: are we doing the right thing? Agile leads to continuous learning, which leads to an environment that can quickly receive feedback and implement that knowledge. This in turn leads to the market responsiveness needed in an ever-changing world. Lean is the response to competitive pressures with limited resources. Lean is the answer to the efficiency question: are we doing things right? Lean leads to a focus on value-added activities and the consistent elimination of non-value-added activities.

What are the Basic Requirements for Both Philosophies to Be Implemented Successfully?

Both philosophies require an atmosphere of learning and trial and error. According to Cynefin, in a complex environment, experience beats analysis. How do we get “experience?” By “experiencing” something, that is, by trying it out and witnessing it. Experimentation allows us to see new perspectives.

So, in the first step, it is our task to create an environment in which everyone is encouraged to make experiences, to discuss mistakes, to start experiments in order to be able to learn from everything. In the second step, it is at least as important to create an environment where this knowledge can also be directly applied. This sounds banal at first – but it is not! An example: We clearly see that a format break in the transfer of documents between development and production results in considerable additional effort and thus waste.

However, for reasons of corporate politics, we are reluctant to cooperate with the other department and harmonize the processes. So we cannot apply our knowledge of this waste. On a small scale as well as on a large scale, each of us surely knows situations in which we actually know better and yet something prevents us from bringing about a change. It is precisely these hurdles that need to be removed in the transformation to a Lean-Agile-Enterprise (Scaled Agile Framework).

How Do We Combine Agile and Lean Practically in Companies? – The Example Of The Pull Principle

One principle that connects both philosophies is the Pull Principle. It is based on pulling new work only when the space for new work is actually there. This reduces parallel work. In the Lean context, this means disharmonies and waste become visible and can be fixed. This gives us the opportunity to harmonize the lead times of the individual work steps and reduce the overall lead times of the individual work packages because we reduce waiting times.

In the Agile context, the pull principle maintains responsiveness because work packages are processed in a focused manner and all information gained can be incorporated into the following tasks before they are started. A consistent implementation of the pull principle enables high predictability, because we learn exactly what values the organization is actually able to produce in a time period. It also makes it possible to incorporate acquired knowledge into the organization and into the products.

The art is, with a consistent implementation of the pull principle, to manage the queues, to prioritize continuously on the basis of the acquired knowledge and to have the courage not to include everything in the product backlog in the first place. The adaptation of the pull principle is an elementary transformation step from the point of view of lean philosophies as well as from the point of view of agile principles.

What Have Agile Methods Taken Over from Lean Philosophies? – The Example Of Scrum

We have already noted that Lean is the answer to efficiency, the question “How do we do things right?”. In its methodological exercise, Lean resorts not only to harmonization but also to standardization and automation in order to make repetitive process steps efficient and thus maximally aligned with value creation. The Scrum Framework transports approaches of the LEAN philosophies into the project business by transferring a unique development into a standardized development process with frequent repetitions. With frequent repetitions is crucial here, because other development or even milestone processes are also standardized and defined.

However, each process step is unique in the classic development of a product and becomes in theory waterfall it lacks so short learning loops. Scrum enables “a temporary effort to create a unique product, service or result” (definition of “project” according to the Project Management Institute, PMI) to be transformed into an iterative & incremental process.

Thus, the individual iterations are standardized: For example, the length, purpose and time of meetings, or the flow of requirements information. Individual process steps are worth being automated due to the frequent repetitions: e.g. integration and delta regression tests (automated testing of only the exact (sub-) systems affected by a change). And the individual iterations are harmonized by a targeted constant development speed of the individual development teams, keyword Relative Estimation & Sprint Velocity. In this way, Scrum takes advantage of the ideas of Lean philosophies to transfer them into a development context and answer the question of effectiveness: “Are we doing the right things?” as efficiently as possible.


Both philosophies and their underlying values and principles encourage us to measure how much value is created as opposed to how much work was done. Value creation, individuals, and willingness to learn are the focus. Agile approaches this from the project side and Lean from the process side, thus complementing each other.
People are more important than any process. … Good people with good processes will outperform good people with no processes every time. Grady Booch

Written by:

Nicolai Illing


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