Agile vs. Lean: What’s the difference?

Published January 15, 2020 Est. reading time 7 Minutes Author Nadeem Amin

Agile vs. Lean: What’s the difference?


Understanding The Relationship Between Lean and Agile

Success in today’s global marketplace hinges upon an organization’s ability to deliver value, both to its customers and to its employees. Organizations need to find ways to move faster and deliver higher quality products and services to customers while providing the structure and stability to promote a healthy organizational culture.

This is no small feat, and it cannot be accomplished through slow-moving, traditional corporate structures. To survive, organizations across the world are adopting the smarter, more efficient methods used by fast-moving, high-growth companies.

Agile and Lean methodologies are being called upon to help businesses move faster and produce higher-quality offerings in sustainable, healthy work environments. Because they are implemented differently in different teams, organizations, and industries, there’s a lot of confusion about the distinctions between these methodologies and the practices associated with them.

Agile is bottom-up, while Lean is top-down



Able to move quickly and easily. Agile is a pragmatic, experience-driven way of organizing and managing projects. Agile places a great value on individuals and interactions, working products and services, customer collaboration, and being responsive to change.


Efficient and with no wastage. Lean is a systematic method for the elimination of waste from a process with the goal of providing what is of value to the customer. Much of what constitutes Lean stems from tools developed at Toyota while creating the Toyota Production System. Although the Lean roots are in manufacturing and production environments, it is widely applied to transactional processes as well.

Agile and Lean at Scale

Over time, different department and team types have found new and unique ways to implement Lean and Agile principles. In some organizations, business teams adopt Lean while the IT department practices Agile. In others, teams practice a Lean-Agile hybrid, taking elements from both methodologies. Because there is no single, defined way to “do” Lean or Agile, organizations often confuse the two, which can be problematic when trying to scale a consistent practice across an organization.

Agile has been proven effective at the team level but does not provide a framework for managing work across cross-functional teams, or scaling planning and prioritization at the team, project, and portfolio levels.

Expanding the application of Agile methods to the entire product creation process requires using a Lean framework that includes:

  • Empowered cross-functional teams
  • Use of continuous improvement methods
  • Utilizing managers as mentors and teachers

Agile focuses on evolving products to better meet customer requirements, but it does not address how to evolve processes to better support the evolution of the product. This is where Kaizen, a Lean method for continuous improvement, comes into play.

A truly Lean-Agile process incorporates elements of both continuous delivery and continuous improvement, optimized across the entire value stream.

Summary Table

Aspect Agile Lean
Obsessed with Waste Users
Manages Process Uncertainty
Delivers Value Working Product
Applies Heuristics Principles
Negative Associations Cost Cutting Chaos
Achilles’ Heel Lean for Lean’s Sake Agile as Religion

Aspect: Obsessed With

Agile Is Obsessed With…

The Agile manifesto is about people. It states that interactions between people and involving the end user are favored over other types of interactions. You can perform a lot of Agile practices, but if you’re not getting your end users involved, then you’re not doing Agile.

Lean Is Obsessed With…

Lean is about waste, a systematic method for the elimination of waste from a process with the goal of providing what is of value to the customer. Much of what constitutes from tools developed at Toyota while creating the Toyota Production System. Although the Lean roots are in manufacturing and production environments, it is widely applied to transactional processes as well.

Aspect: Manages

Agile Manages…

Agile was originally developed as a software development methodology by a group of smart people who realized that you don’t really know what the software is going to look like until you build it. They created Agile principles as a way of integrating uncertainty into the product development process. Instead of minimizing uncertainty with detailed requirements and specifications, they created a process by which the customer provides feedback to the team on a predictable timeline.

Lean Manages…

Lean was developed to manage processes, and the ingenious people who created it realized that the best way to understand a process is to go out and look at it and experience it. Then you can manage it.

Aspect: Delivers

Agile Delivers…

The Agile Manifesto states that working software is valued over documentation (it doesn’t say that there is no documentation)! The goal of the development team is to bring something that works to the end-user for their feedback.

Lean Delivers…

In Lean, the idea is that the process should deliver the most value. In practice, this means that any step that does not add value in some way, such as meeting an explicit customer requirement, should be eliminated.

Aspect: Applies

Agile Applies…

Agile practitioners attempt to apply principles to the problems they encounter. For example, a project manager or stakeholder may ask an Agile team, “How will you measure progress?” The correct response is “Working software.” There can be other measures, but the one that matters is working software.

Lean Applies…

Lean practitioners apply heuristics. Colloquially, a heuristic is a “rule of thumb.” In Lean, “eliminate waste” is a heuristic approach. Most process issues involve excess movement, excess steps, gold-plating, and so on, and by reducing these steps when you encounter them, you will make a process more efficient. You don’t have to do a full-on Six Sigma study because the Lean heuristic has started you in the right direction.

Aspect: Negative Associations for Agile and Lean

As MBA-program CEOs have misunderstood Agile and Lean, the terms have picked up baggage.

– Agile is associated with chaotic environments, ruthless management, and cowboy coding.
– Lean is linked to cost-cutting and layoffs. Both are myths.

Aspect: Achilles’ Heel

Agile’s Achilles’ Heel

“Agile-as-religion” occurs when Agilistas refuse to implement Agile in an “impure” state. Agile transformations are journeys of a thousand steps, and the politics will get very messy. The most successful Agile implementations tend to occur when the organization sticks to the principles and is flexible on the practices.

Lean’s Achilles’ Heel

“Lean for Lean’s sake” arises when the process guru applies Lean heuristics without regard for the situation. One example of this is in supply chains, where having a small inventory of a critical part will keep a production line running when delivery is interrupted. Another situation is in services, in which it appears to be more efficient to have a customer deal with an IVR system, but in doing so, the customer perceives a lower-value experience. Zappos is an example of how customer experience can be combined with efficient service.

Agile and Lean: Compare and Contrast


The goal of Agile is ultimately to make the process flexible, which is done by delivering in small, frequent iterations.

The goal of Lean is to make the process sustainable, which is done by continuously improving processes. Listening to and incorporating customer feedback is at the core of both Agile and Lean.

Action loops and measures of progress

Agile delivers a feature-focused iteration, with a pre-defined definition of “done” as the measure of progress for each iteration. The Agile Manifesto defines the ‘working process’ as a primary measure of progress. Progress can be measured by the successful deployment of a specific deliverable or product.

Lean operates in a cycle of ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ defining progress as validated learning. Compared to the iterative model of Agile, Lean development involves testing, measuring, and validating hypotheses based on trends in the market and past work. When planning and prioritizing work, Lean teams focus on efforts that would provide the greatest value to the customer. They continuously identify ways to reduce waste while maximizing customer value.

Lean is about process and quality, Agile is about scope and value


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