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5 Lean principles to boost Agile processes

Agile and Lean are like cousins. They share a heritage of optimizing work processes, but each has carved out its own niche. While Agile shines in the realm of new product development—navigating the uncertainties of "what" to build and "how" to provide maximum value to customers through iterative exploration—Lean hones in on streamlining existing processes to boost efficiency and eliminate any roadblocks. It's not a case of Agile versus Lean, rather, it's about synergy. Agile, with its emphasis on adaptability and customer value, doesn't always put efficiency first. However, there's a wealth of Lean principles that can be seamlessly integrated to enhance productivity and streamline efficiency within Agile teams. In this blog post, we're going to explore these Lean concepts that Agile teams can adopt to elevate their game. Ready to boost your team's productivity with a Lean twist? Let’s get started.

#1 Reducing Waste

Lean emphasizes the reduction of waste, and this is categorized into three primary types, originating from Japanese terminology: Muda (無駄 - unnecessary work), Muri (無理 - overburden), and Mura (ムラ一 - inconsistency). To grasp waste more clearly, track an everyday activity, like preparing morning coffee. Time the process, observe unnecessary actions, and ponder how to streamline it, aiming to cut the time in half.
Noticing waste is a crucial skill, and reducing it can save substantial resources. However, in Agile, the complete eradication of waste isn't the objective. Just as you might take a moment to select the best coffee beans or savor the aroma of fresh coffee rather than ruthlessly optimizing the process, Agile teams sometimes undertake actions that may appear wasteful at first glance, such as creating multiple prototypes or exploring various approaches. These efforts can ultimately deliver more value to customers. Hence, our goal is not to eliminate waste entirely but to discern it and be mindful of it, so we can eliminate only the superfluous elements.

#2 Pull not Push

The Lean principle of "pull, not push" stems from factory management and is centered on inventory control. It suggests waiting for the next team in the workflow to request work instead of pushing finished work into their queue, making it easier to spot bottlenecks. Consider a team that manufactures steering wheels and sends them to the car assembly line, where they accumulate and eventually halt production. If they waited for the assembly line to request the exact number of steering wheels needed, any issue with inventory overflow would be identified and addressed sooner.
In Agile, while we aim for cross-functional teams that handle products from start to finish and reduce handovers, the times when we do have handovers, the "pull" approach is vital. Allowing the next person or team to pull work when they're ready helps us detect and solve bottlenecks early, averting larger issues.

#3 Visualizing Workflow

Visual management is something Agile teams find quite familiar, often using backlogs and Kanban boards to keep track of tasks. A word of caution here: when visualizing your process, particularly if it’s your first foray or if you’ve hit a snag, it’s essential to represent the workflow as it currently exists. Resist the urge to craft an ideal flow on paper or to iron out all process-related issues at once. By mapping out the actual state of your processes, you will likely uncover various inefficiencies. Since resolving every single one of them simultaneously isn't feasible, prioritize gradual enhancement. Embrace where you are and apply the Lean principle of Kaizen for continual, manageable improvements over the pursuit of immediate perfection.

#4 Embrace Small Batches

The philosophy of small batches is about focusing on fewer items, which leads to two pivotal benefits: quicker delivery of value to the customer, enabling rapid feedback for future improvements, and refining internal workflows for optimal value delivery. To implement small batches effectively, two principles are paramount:
1) Break down work items into the smallest viable increments. This is where the concept of user stories becomes a valuable tool for itemization, providing bite-sized pieces of work that contribute to a larger whole (you can find a deeper dive on user stories in one of my previous blog posts link).
2) Set a Work In Progress (WIP) limit for each stage of your process. There's no one-size-fits-all number for WIP limits as it hinges on the unique dynamics of each team. A good starting point might be to match the WIP limit with the number of team members, or go even lower when feasible, to maintain a focus on completing tasks before taking on new ones. This practice fosters a disciplined approach, ensuring that the team's effort is concentrated and effective.

#5 Flow Management

Flow management in Lean is about vigilantly tracking the workflow and addressing any issues as they come up. It's a concept that, while not always directly translatable, is crucial for Agile teams to understand. With Agile, we’re dealing with complex product development that naturally involves some delays and dependencies creating bottlenecks. While it's not feasible to remove these entirely, we do have the power to mitigate them. If a particular bottleneck recurs, it’s a signal for us to revisit and refine our processes. This isn't about striving for a perfect system but about evolving our workflow to prevent persistent problems and promote a smoother path to value delivery.
In conclusion, Agile teams have a wealth of insights to gain from Lean principles. It's about selective adoption—taking on board those Lean concepts that resonate with and enrich our Agile practices. The ultimate test is practicality; if a Lean approach meshes well with the team dynamics and product goals, it's a keeper. Agile is not about strict adherence to a set of rules but about finding the most sensible path to creating value. Lean thinking can be a valuable compass on this journey, guiding us to question, refine, and improve continuously.
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