Agile vs lean methodologies (definitions and differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 27 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Various industries often develop certain practices or methodologies for improving the way they operate. Two popular examples of this are the agile and lean methodologies. Since they typically apply to different industries, understanding the difference between these can help you determine which is most appropriate for where you're working. In this article, we explain what agile vs lean are, discuss their key differences and list their notable similarities.

Agile vs lean

To understand the key agile vs lean differences and similarities, becoming familiar with each of these is essential. Here is a description of both the agile and lean methodologies:

Agile

The agile methodology is one which is typically best suited to development work, such as the development of software applications for clients. This development process often involves a lot of trial and error, updates and client feedback. The purpose of the agile methodology is to facilitate this process and make it efficient. Under this approach, the individuals who perform the core tasks of development are the most important factor, even more so than the tools they use. This method also emphasises collaboration with end-users or clients to integrate their feedback into the ongoing development process.

For these reasons, the agile approach is very adaptable to change. It also prioritises delivering the product to clients as early as possible. The personnel who do the actual work also have a lot of control over how they operate and the tools they use, with intra-organisational cooperation a prominent feature of this methodology. Also, the agile approach emphasises simplicity and motivation to make development as effective as possible. Another key aspect is taking time to reflect on what's already done, listening to feedback and implementing adjustments rapidly to ensure high-quality products.

Read more: What is agile project management? (Everything you need to know)

Lean

The lean methodology is typically best suited to industrial production, such as the manufacturing of goods for sale to consumers. This approach was initially a Japanese innovation, which has become popular over time. One of its primary principles is to produce goods based on demand, rather than supply. This means that manufacturing only commences once there's actual demand for the goods, rather than producing pre-defined quantities and hoping consumers are going to buy them all. To make this workable, the lean method has a central focus on efficiency, speed and quality.

Like the agile approach, lean production considers the personnel who undertake the actual manufacturing to be the most important factor. This is based on the premise that those who do the work know how to do it best, which allows them more autonomy. Managers encourage them to innovate and improve their own processes to improve quality and efficiency. This approach also considers time spent on improving quality and efficiency to be a net benefit. It includes the elimination of all forms of waste, including time and materials. Finally, the emphasis is on the entire team.

Read more: What are lean principles? (Guide to the 9 lean methodology)

Key agile vs lean differences

Despite possessing some similarities in methodology, there are distinctions between these approaches, which typically make them better suited to different industries. Here are some key agile vs lean differences to consider:

Industry preference

One of the primary differences is where each of these methodologies originated. The agile approach originated in development, whereas lean originated in production. In development, the initial product which the company produces is rarely the same as the final one which end-users receive. It undergoes revisions, updates and implementations of client feedback throughout the process.

Conversely, in production, the final product is typically something the producers have already established and there's minor alteration throughout the production process. This is why lean is usually better suited to the production of physical goods, whereas the adaptable approach of agile is better for industries like software development.

Role of feedback

The lean methodology implements minimal client or consumer feedback once production has started. Conversely, the agile approach typically incorporates a lot of feedback throughout a continual process of revision and updating. Prior to a lean production run, the company initially establishes that demand exists for a particular product. The company would already have a working sample of the product, which would change very little by the time it reaches consumers.

The origins of any feedback in a lean production system are likely to come from personnel who have suggestions for improving the production process itself, rather than the final product. In most cases, the company would allow them to implement these ideas because it believes that they know best. Having an active role in how they work can also be good for staff motivation. For agile development, client feedback and suggestions are typically an ongoing part of the development process, with the final product being very different from the initial variants.

Related: 10 strategies for getting feedback from your team at work

Scope

These two methodologies can work at different levels of the organisation. The agile approach is typically best for teams of people, with sizes often fewer than 20 individuals. Continual communication and feedback are necessary for agile development benefits from smaller group sizes. Conversely, lean production can apply to an entire organisation. This is because key principles like the central role of production staff can apply to a wide variety of working environments.

Workflow and production

Although both approaches emphasise the importance of speed, the way they organise work is quite different. Agile development requires the rapid creation of workable software so that clients can test it and give their feedback. The approach, therefore, typically involves numerous small batches of rapidly completed work with an emphasis on quality. More batches mean more opportunities for feedback and more opportunities for improvement.

The lean approach also emphasises speed, but there are far fewer variants of the product. Instead, once there's an established demand for the product, the production process begins until a batch of final goods is complete. These go straight to the customers after production and any feedback goes into the next production run instead. This means that the lean approach involves far fewer iterations of the actual product and a more continuous production process.

Role definition and structure

Both these approaches emphasise the importance of the staff who produce the end product, but the lean methodology is typically less structured. For instance, agile development teams typically have defined roles for members, systematic reviews and structured meetings. The lean approach relies less on formal structure and more on encouraging a workplace culture which embraces lean values. This allows staff to organise their own work based on mutual collaboration and respect. The need for lean methods to become part of the company's culture can make it more challenging to implement in some cases.

Agile and lean similarities

Here are some similarities between the agile and lean methodologies:

Speed

Although both methods implement it differently, they both focus on speed. In the case of agile development, fast turnaround can lead to more frequent client feedback. This allows the team to produce the best quality possible. For lean production, speed is important because it responds to demand. Since demand can often fluctuate, it's important to respond to it rapidly with efficient production processes. The principle of production staff centrality is meant to give them the autonomy to make their own processes as efficient as possible since they know them best.

Key role of employees

Both of these methods emphasise the importance of the staff who do the actual development or production work, as opposed to their tools or leaders. Consequently, they both emphasise the motivation and skill of their employees. In the case of agile development, this can come from working in a communicative and collaborative team where everyone knows each other. For lean production, autonomy and the company's culture are key sources of motivation for staff.

Related: 19 ways to increase staff motivation at work

Inspection and adaptation

The agile and lean methodologies both emphasise the importance of continuous process improvement and ongoing inspections. In the lean approach, participants might use the Japanese term 'kaizen' to describe this, which means 'change for the better'. In both approaches, staff play a key role in determining how best to achieve this positive change.

Related:

  • Why an agile mindset is beneficial in the workplace


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