Software Development Face-off: Agile vs. Lean

The right kind of project management methodology can do wonders in software development. However, when it comes to choosing one, people would want a lot of questions answered.

What is this Agile methodology we’ve been hearing about?

I’ve heard it’s quite similar to Lean methodology. Is it?

Does Agile actually mean Scrum?

Agile and Lean have been around for a very long time. But choosing one of two has always been under debate. There is a relationship between the two which is often misunderstood.

This is just a simple analysis of what each means, and how they are connected. But first, their history…


Originally derived from ‘Lean Manufacturing’.

Lean Manufacturing, according to Wikipedia, is a method devised for the elimination of waste within a manufacturing system.

The Lean methodology, from a software project management perspective, is basically a set of principles that will help achieve speed, quality and customer satisfaction.

You may have heard something similar about Agile development methodology as well. Therein lies the source of confusion.


Back in the days, there were some hardcore methodologies in software development. They were popular all right, but kind of defeated their own purpose. How?

You see, these methodologies started stultifying software projects, preventing them from providing the result they were meant to. Software projects were meant to create software that helped the customer. With those methodologies, things went sideways. At that time, the Agile Manifesto was formulated as a reaction….or better yet – a solution.

So Agile basically refers to the principles proposed in the Manifesto.

The confusion

A woman named Mary Poppendieck who had worked in a manufacturing plant, worked with her husband Tom Poppendieck, a software developer, to figure out a way to adopt some manufacturing principles in the software realm. That intellectual concoction, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call Lean.

Interestingly, Mary was also the founding board member of the Agile Alliance, that introduced the Agile concept. Strong lean-influenced ideas obviously had a key role in the origin of the Agile Manifesto.

Lean and Agile

History lesson is over. Time to focus on the topic at hand.

So the ideas from Lean manufacturing has been applied to software development. This kind of defines the way Agile works. Hence the similarity. Both Lean and Agile is based on a combination of customer-centric approach and adaptive planning. As a matter of fact, Lean manufacturing did influence Agile enthusiasts or Agilists as they are commonly called.

Lean is about eliminating waste right? So in the software realm, the idea is to eliminate anything that doesn’t have value, and work on only that which is absolutely necessary. That ‘anything’ could include documentations, meetings, certain tasks etc. Inefficient ways of working will also be eliminated, thereby delivering results faster.

Here’s what one can derive from Mary Poppendieck’s words.

Lean = Rapid Response + Quality + Discipline + Speed-to-market

Agile, on its own, focusses on short iterations. A functional software will be delivered in the end after thorough testing, scrums, sprints and a lot of other facets.

The Poppendiecks’ approach was to blend Lean with Agile. This Lean-Agile combo will include the iterations of Agile development, and the validation practices of Lean. They are deeply entwined when applied to a software development environment. One isn’t exactly an alternative to the other. So, in a nutshell, if you are using Agile, you are using Lean as well…and vice versa.

The point of interest is where you decide to use the ideas from Lean manufacturing in your Agile methodology. So there isn’t actually a victor in this face-off.

To conclude, there isn’t a big difference between two except at the core. Lean software development focusses on elimination of waste so as to improve the processes, while Agile software development methodologies adhere to the principles in the Agile Manifesto (eg: Scrum).

With that said, a good Agile development team will adopt the best technical and management practices (which will include the principles of Lean as well) that work best for them, and leave their customers satisfied in the end.