An Overview of Lean-Agile Methods


Life used to be simpler. In the early 2000s, if you wanted to go "agile," XP was the route of choice. And then Scrum became popular. And it was not too long before organizations began to hit the limits of these approaches due to their focus on teams. And then it became apparent that lean principles could be applied to software and Lean Software Development and later Kanban were added to the mix. Now, you have a great many choices: Not just about which method to use, but where to start, whether to go top-down or bottom-up, and what should be the scope of your effort.

What is Agile?
Let’s start by considering what is meant by “Agile.” Many people would tell you that Agile means building software in small steps (iterations), measuring the progress and health of the project in terms of developed software, and working in close contact with the customer to ensure that what is built is truly useful. This is what I would call “team agility” because its focus is on the team and how the team works. It is the most common form of agility in use at present. While it is very effective for many, it should not really be the goal you strive for.

The best measure of success—the real goal of our work—must focus on how responsive the business unit that the development organization serves can be. I call this “business agility.” It encompasses more than merely the team. Unfortunately, it is much harder to achieve. Business agility is the ability for a business (or business unit) to deliver increments of business value to their customers (for product companies) or the business side of the organization (for IT organizations). Business agility enables companies to respond quickly as needed when market conditions change, new technologies arise, or new ideas are developed.

Business agility is like having a car that is nimble, efficient, and goes where it needs to. Team agility is like having a finely tuned engine that enables the car to do whatever the driver wants. In other words, business agility is the real goal; team agility is a means to that end. Now it may be that in small enough organizations, focusing on the team alone may be adequate; however, in most organizations of size, trying to achieve business agility by focusing on the team is like trying to get a better performing car just by tuning and re-tuning the engine: it can help but you might see better results by improving the transmission or brakes. 

Popular Agile Methods: Scrum and XP
As I said, Scrum and now, to a lesser extent, eXtreme Programming, have been the most popular methods in the Agile movement. XP is rooted in development practices such as pair-programming, test-first, continuous integration, collective ownership and more. Scrum is primarily a process framework that exposes an organization’s impediments. Its underlying assumption is that if you can see what you are doing wrong, you can fix the problem. Scrum’s power is that you will discover problems quickly—in a matter of weeks. This is a vast improvement over waterfall methods. The challenge is that sometimes the problems that are exposed are such that the solutions are not clear.

Both methods use iterations (building in 1-4 week intervals) and self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Scrum has gotten to be more popular for a few reasons. First, it is easier to start because the team doesn’t have to commit to the technical practices that are the core of XP. This level of change is too much for some teams to bear. Second, Scrum’s certification program has spawned scores of “Certified Scrum Trainers” (CSTs) who both teach Scrum and promote it. As a result, many in the industry have come to think that “going Agile” means “taking a CSM (Certified ScrumMaster) class and adopting Scrum.”

Challenges in the Agile World
Scrum has grown virally. Now, the challenges are showing up. One of the originators of Scrum, Ken Schwaber, said in an interview with Agile Collab that, “75% of organizations using Scrum will not succeed in getting the benefits that they hope for from it.”

There are many opinions about why this is the case. This article’s author posited several reasons including,

  • Many problems facing development teams actually originate outside the team; for example, overloading teams by giving them too many projects at one time.
  • Many large organizations have poor deployment methods that make it difficult to get software out the door. While Scrum may expose these impediments, they are difficult to solve and Scrum, in itself, does not give any insights on how to solve them.
  • Many organizations have difficulty creating the cross-functional teams that Scrum requires to work. People with specialized skills, knowledge of legacy code or domain expertise are often required to be shared across teams, breaking the power of the Scrum model.
  • Many teams that are new to Scrum have never been taught the principles of product development flow.
  • While Scrum was originally designed for co-located teams, it is often necessary to use distributed teams.

Many Scrum aficionados claim that the real reason that organizations are not experiencing success with Scrum is that those organizations just don’t have the discipline or motivation necessary to solve their problems.

Regardless of the cause, the problem remains. To meet this challenge, two other Agile-related methods have sprung up: Lean Software Development and “A Virtual Kanban System for Software Engineering” (or ‘Kanban’ for short). Both of these methods directly address the problems that organizations are having with Scrum. It is why I started doing Lean over five years ago and Kanban about 3 years ago.

Lean Software Development
Lean Software Development is founded on the understanding that the principles of Lean manufacturing and product development methods can apply to software development. Of course, the practices are different but the mindset, the way of thinking, is the same. Its origins date back to the mid-90s with an article by Bob Charette. It became popularized with by Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s books, the first one, Lean Software Development, An Agile Toolkit, being published in 2003 (Poppendieck amp; Poppendieck, 2003). Lean Software Development is based on the notions of eliminating waste (any effort that is not of value to the customer), optimizing the whole (going from “concept to cash”), delivering fast, building quality in, respecting people, improving relentlessly and deferring commitment until you know what you need to do.

A second camp, so to speak, has sprung up around the work of Don Reinertsen [2]. Reinertsen approaches Lean on the basis of appreciating the system that people are working in, fostering the skills of the people you have in that systems, and attending to time by seeing how work flows through the system. By “flow,” he means to see where delays occur or where large queues form.

Regardless of which way you prefer to approach Lean, it is useful to provide insights into how to solve problems both inside and outside of the development organization. Its model of flow (focusing on fewer, smaller things in your development pipeline to get value delivered quickly) suggests that one way to improve your software development value stream is to avoid overloading your development teams. When you consider how many development teams seem to thrash because they are doing too many things at once, you may intuitively get this concept.

Kanban is based both on Lean and the theory of constraints. It was created by David Anderson about five years ago and is achieving an upsurge in interest [3]. Kanban is based on a few basic premises. The first is that requiring an organization to undergo a large change at one time in order to start being Agile may be counter-productive. Telling people they have to adopt new roles and work in a different way often creates fear in those being forced to change. They feel devalued as they are told their former methods of working are to be abandoned.

The first few years of the Agile movement saw Scrum adopted where teams already existed and the developers/testers/analysts wanted to change. Many going the Agile route no longer fit into this class—perhaps another reason for the difficulties encountered. Many Agilists will tell you that the way to overcome this high amount of change is to hire a trainer and coach. However, an alternative approach may be to understake a smooth transition while starting down a road that gets you to your ultimate goal in a less disruptive manner.

The essence of Kanban is to start where you are and do three things:

  • Make agreements with your stakeholders as to what your goals are and how many projects the developers will be working on at any one time.
  • Create visibility into the development process by mapping its value stream. A “value stream” is the series of steps where an idea goes from concept to being defined to being built to being deployed to being used. Then have explicitly defined policies of how work moves through the value stream. This is extremely important because it enables management to see how their actions affect the team and because the discussions around these explicit policies greatly accelerate learning.
  • Manage the amount of work in progress (WIP) being done at each step. In particular, the team (and management) needs to look for places where the work gets backed up and then figure out how to unblock things. This clarity provides insights into solving the impediments the team hits.

Corey Ladas incorporated Kanban to the Scrum framework to create a hybrid called “Scrumban.” This has been a useful method for helping Scrum teams to adopt Kanban methods[4].

Achieving Business Agility: Where to Start
So, where do you start? It depends on where you are and where you want to go. My experience is that trying to start an Agile adoption through a team pilot project is not always best. Like that car’s engine, the team method may not be the problem. Even if it needs improving, you will always be better off by looking at the entire context within which software development is done and then choosing what to improve. Here are two recommendations:

  • Begin by looking at the entire value stream. Where are the challenges, what needs to improve? This does not mean you are committing to changing more than the team, but doing so will provide insights that will ensure team progress translates to business progress, to business agility.
  • Let the teams involved choose between Scrum and Kanban. They will intuitively know which is best for them. Part of respecting people means to allow them to choose how they do their work—within the context of the business, of course.

Considering the entire context is the difference between scaling agility and agility at scale. But that is a topic for another article.

If you are interested in learning more about Kanban, Lean, Scrum, or XP, please visit the Net Objectives resources page at You can also find a wealth of information on Lean and Kanban, as well as upcoming conferences, at

Works Cited

Anderson, D. (2010). Kanban. Sequim, WA: Blue Hole Press .

Ladas, C. (2009). Scrumban: Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development. Modus Cooperandi Press .

Poppendieck, M., amp; Poppendieck, T. (2003). Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. Addison-Wesley Professoinal.

Reinertsen, D. (1997). Managing the design factory : a product developer’s toolkit. New York: Free Press.



[2] Don’s book, Managing the Design Factory(Reinertsen, 1997) is still state of the art, a must read.

[3] David’s recent book, Kanban (Anderson, 2010) Kanban book is another must read.

[4] If you are doing Scrum and facing challenges completing iterations effectively, I highly recommend Scrumban (Ladas, 2009).

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