Words like Lean and Agile have been appearing more and more in the worlds of business and technology. Organizations are looking to be faster, better, and smarter, and Lean and Agile principles are a great way to accomplish just that. But what are Lean and Agile, really?

There’s some confusion about the definitions of Lean and Agile, because organizations and industries use these methodologies in different ways. You might be surprised to learn, however, that Lean and Agile practices actually complement rather than oppose each other. With the right tools, you can implement these practices to improve your work processes.

This overview will guide you through a basic understanding of Lean and Agile methodologies, explain the four key elements of adopting an Agile Lean mindset, and introduce you to how you can employ ideals from both philosophies.

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Lean Principles and Agile Methodology: A Brief History

Lean principles

Lean ideals began in the 1950s with Toyota automobile manufacturing in Japan. Lean came out of what was developed by Taiichi Ohno as the Toyota Production System (TPS). The system used visual signals to indicate inventory needs precisely when items were needed, to reduce overall waste and optimize the entire system of production.

As manufacturers in the West struggled to keep up with the pace set by Japanese companies employing TPS, they began to use similar principles, which came to be known as Lean principles. Modern Lean practices now employ seven Lean principles that evolved from TPS.

Agile methodology

Originally designed with developers in mind, the blueprints for the Agile practice map a way to continuously deliver value. Instead of focusing on large-scale, planned releases of software, Agile focuses on smaller, more frequent deliverables. Work is released as it’s ready.

The modern Agile movement began with a meeting in 2001 in Utah. Seventeen developers met at the Snowbird resort to discuss a better way to work. The ultimate result of this meeting was the Agile Manifesto, an outline of 12 principles that helped define Agile for software development.

Agile Lean, Lean Agile: Faster, Better, Smarter Together

While there are differences in the ways organizations implement aspects of Agile and Lean, both Lean and Agile aim to keep work moving and deliver quickly with minimal waste. Incorporating principles from these two fast-paced practices to create a combined Lean Agile methodology is how many organizations minimize overhead and speed up production in a lasting and sustainable way.

Kanban: Visualizing your work the Lean Agile way

Visualizing your workflow helps you:

  • track work progress
  • identify potential problems or roadblocks
  • understand the speed at which your work items flow through the system
An understanding of how work is flowing is essential to continuous improvement and frequent delivery, two key elements of the Lean and Agile methodologies.

One easy way to visualize your workflow is with Kanban boards. Both Lean and Agile practices can benefit from utilizing Kanban boards to visualize workflow and map how work items flow through the process.

Kanban boards are digital boards on which you have mapped out the steps of your workflow with lanes. Work items are represented by cards (a “digital sticky note”) housed in these lanes to show where work items are in the process. Visualizing work in this way helps to identify problems quickly and improve future work processes.

Key Elements of Adopting a Lean and Agile Mindset

Embrace change

Begin by helping your team and organization to understand that things will be in a constant state of change. Lean and Agile principles suggest embracing change as a critical element of progress; it’s a necessary part of process improvement and continuous delivery.

Move toward continuous delivery and improvement

Start moving your team or organization toward delivering value in smaller, iterative chunks. Don’t spend time focusing too intently on the big picture. Nothing can be “perfect,” but things can be moving continuously toward improvement – toward always becoming better.

Measure progress

Keep your goals in mind and measure how you, your organization, and / or your team(s) meets those goals. Setting goals:

  • Creates clarity across your organization and gives your team an understanding of exactly what is expected of them
  • Helps to further define your work, where you want the work to go, and how you want to get there
  • Makes it easy to measure the progression of work in order to learn from any mistakes and improve future work

Visualize workflow

All of this is made easier with the right tools to visualize work and measure your progress. Use a Kanban board to design a representation of your workflow and track work progress. You can create a digital representation of a Kanban board to easily track these processes, and analytics reports allow you to analyze and understand your workflow on a granular level.

Lean Agile Methodology Over Time

Implementing aspects of both Lean and Agile practices can help your team, organization or industry improve work process. Some organizations choose to employ practices from Lean and Agile at different levels of the organization, adopting them differently based their departmental goals, and some use bits of both methodologies organization-wide.

Remember, there isn’t one way to practice Lean or Agile: It’s all about what works best for you and your customers. Experimenting with aspects of each methodology will help you, your team, and your organization begin to see how you work together to make you faster, better, and smarter.