This is part of my ongoing series devoted to understanding the connection between Disruption Theory, Lean Startup, Lean product development, and Agile software development.
In many organizations the adoption of Agile software development techniques have been adopted rather quickly. For those unfamiliar with Agile software development, the point is to focus on user experience through developing software that is created through user stories (there’s a lot more to it obviously). Agile grew out of an understanding of Lean practices, where there is a strong focus on learning, daily standups, and understanding where and why things went wrong. This includes the use of the 5Whys which was highlighted in the Lean Startup. In away the company becomes a learning organization as there is a set meeting every sprint to reflect on the last few weeks of work. Agile was initially conceived around the turn of the century and has seen steady adoption over the past 15 or so years.
Many of these ideas came from Lean. While retrospective isn’t specifically called out in Lean, it happens consistently through a Plan Do Check Act cycle. Furthermore it happens through Root Cause analysis which happens on nearly a daily basis whenever issues arise. Much of the most ardent Lean practitioners are found in manufacturing, however it is making headway in other areas of the organization over time. Lean was Popularized in the early 90’s by the book “The Machine that Changed the World” but is much older than that and had been adopted by Toyota competitors as early as the 70’s.
So, then why, when Lean is the inspiration for Agile (as well as the Lean Startup), has Agile been heavily adopted while Lean has not? I do not mean to say that Lean isn’t used; it’s used a lot of places. However, it’s not used in the bulk of companies around the world or used uniformly throughout an organization. Agile has been adopted as a methodology across many industries and within many different types of companies. It is also not possible to say that one works while the other doesn’t. Both have been shown to improve processes and drive cultural change within an organization. I think that Agile has been more quickly adopted in broader corporate America than Lean because, similarly to Lean, it was made by and for the people that use it the most; Corporate IT. IT/Software development has owned the deployment of Agile practices which has made them much more successful at adopting them than those same corporations adopting Lean practices.
Agile has had the luxury of being successful in many organizations in a very public manner. Which has lead to a lot of top down support and required adoption of the methodology. This makes adopting specific methods for project management significantly easier for adoption of any given methodology. In fact, Lean and Six Sigma deployments are only successful whenever those deployments are attached to specific strategic initiatives. With IT any project that is funded for development is by definition strategic resulting in clear alignment between the Agile deployment and the execution of the project. Lean typically does not have this luxury.
Furthermore, Lean is not well regarded in many leadership circles as it is not typically taught in high level MBA courses. Agile on the other hand has made it into Masters programs for both IT and Computer Science. Meaning that the leaders responsible for owning processes and project results learned about how to deploy Agile in their education and it was a highly stressed practice. On the other hand Lean is part of Industrial/Manufacturing Engineering and to specific business niches. Which means that there’s a clear misunderstanding of Lean and the management practices that accompany the tools.
Coming to Agile from the Lean perspective, I believe that Lean practitioners have a lot to learn from the Agile community around adoption. Much of the actual practices are extremely similar and anyone with a strong Lean background will be able to transition into an Agile environment easily. The transition the other direction will be only slightly harder, mostly because of the broader range of performance metrics associated with Lean compared to a handful with Agile.