In the Agile Practice Guide published by PMI® and the Agile Alliance®, there is the Venn diagram shown above. It is a simple yet useful visual that most of us long-toothed Agile practitioners clearly understand.  Unfortunately, I am finding through my training practice that “coaches” and late-adopter organizations have  missed this step.  Let me restate this in a more compelling way:

If you don’t embrace Lean as an organization, you will constantly face challenges with your Agile implementation.

What does it mean to be “Lean”?

I am not referring to the book, “Lean Software Development,” which is valuable but is still a subset of organizational Lean. I am referring to the Lean as defined in the Toyota Production System (TPS) created by Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda.

While in school for Industrial Engineering I learned all about TPS. After graduation, when I started managing large software development projects, my education in Lean proved useful for software development. Based upon this education and training, adoption of the Lean principles became my fundamental basis for project management. This realization occurred prior to Agile Manifesto’s creation; to become more “Agile” I followed the models set by authors who were already adopting software development best practices that aligned with Lean principles.

Jeffrey Liker summarizes these Lean principles in his 2001 book The Toyota Way:

  1. Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
  2. Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  3. Use “pull” systems to avoid overproduction.
  4. Level out the workload (work like the tortoise, not the hare).
  5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.
  6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee engagement.
  7. Use visual controls so no problems are hidden.
  8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and process.
  9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
  10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
  12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.
  13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.
  14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

These principles are framework agnostic and can be applied to any project and any organization looking to excel. Organizations that adopt Lean have more success than those that only adopt Agile. Scott Ambler, the author of Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD), published the following study in 2013:

While not an overwhelming difference between Agile and Lean (65% vs 70% successful) I’ve found that more recently that the gap is widening.

While not a comprehensive description, this article highlights the potential of Lean. If you are focused on an Agile framework, process, procedure or tool, and are facing challenges with your Agile implementation, there may be another option. Step back from your project and work with leadership to decide if any of the above principles are missing or lacking. Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Is there a direct relationship between the lack of a Lean principle and your Agile implementation challenges?
  • Is the organization committed to doing what it takes to be Lean and fundamentally Agile?

Ultimately, you can self-assess by reading and reflecting on those principles. The path forward is simple if you adopt a Lean approach to your implementation: Try it! If you fail or succeed, if you focus on continuous improvement you will propel your company forward.


About the Author: Dan Tousignant

Dan has been leading software development projects for 20 years. He was first formally introduced to Agile via a Scrum Implementation in 2000 and has since adopted the Agile Manifesto values and principles when leading software development projects.

Dan holds a BS in Industrial Engineering from UMASS, Amherst and is a Professional Scrum Master, Certified Product Owner, PMI Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified Scrum Professional.

Dan Tousignant, PMP, CSP, PMI-ACP, SPC

President Cape Project Management, Inc.