There has been a lot written about the difference between Agile and Lean. Yes, Agile frameworks utilize Lean principles. But there are also Lean methodologies, such as six sigma. Kanban comes from lean, kanban board from agile. Elimination of waste or removal of bottlenecks in a workflow comes from lean but increased velocity is an agile concept. Continuous improvement is built into both. So what is the difference then?
My colleague told me recently that the distinction is simple: lean is about cost and agile is about time. Sounds nice but it is not that simple. Yes, there are timeboxed iterations in Scrum but cost reduction and effectiveness are as important as in lean. Yes, we want to eliminate waste in lean, but continuous improvement via retrospective is built into Scrum as well. So what is the difference (if it exists)?
I think that the difference is in the way of thinking, not the rules themselves. While Agile follows a lot of similar practices, Lean emphasizes personal responsibility of every person to exhibit the new way of thinking. The 2-second lean video became famous. What can be less appealing than a trash can? It turns out that a trash can motivated and energized thousands of people around the globe. At a small plant, employees come to work every morning and spend 15 minutes brainstorming and coming up with improvement ideas in any area of their choice. A redesigned trash can cover saves employees hundreds of hours monthly, and it was such a simple fix outside of the person's area of responsibility.
What does it mean to you? No matter what you do, employ lean thinking and ask yourself the questions: why are we doing what we are doing? what is the value? can we realize value elsewhere? how we can improve? where is the bottleneck(s)? how we can pivot and continuously improve?
I conducted Lean-Agile Training for internal participants recently. I showed them the "2-second lean" video, and as they moved through the presentation, I was looking at their faces. They all seemed to like the concept but were bored towards the end. When the short movie ended, I asked a question: "Who thought about your own improvement?" and the best answer I got was: "Since you did not instruct us to read past Chapter 5 and did not give us instruction to think of own ideas, we were sitting here doing nothing and waiting for others to finish." This is the scenario where lean thinking, which promotes ownership and initiativeness, does not apply.
Another interesting example: next, I asked a 15-people training team to come up with lean improvements after watching this video. Since there was a garbage bin improvement in the video, everyone came up with facilities-related improvement ideas (bathrooms, light bulbs, elevator buttons) but the interesting part was that this was a software development team. While clearly seeing inefficiencies in the facilities area, they did not prioritize any items in their immediate sphere of ownership. While they could clearly see inefficiencies in other areas, they were not able to see them in their own domain or prioritize them high enough to resolve. When I raised this topic and the team suggested several inefficiencies to resolve in IT area (e.g. PPM form has too many fields, deployment process is necessarily complex), they did not assume ownership over those and rather, suggested that an Agile Coach (!) takes this ownership. Lean thinking is not easy, neither gets acquired fast.
What does it mean to you? If you want to succeed in a modern fast paced world, become a lean thinker. See inefficiencies, identify them, quantify, suggest solutions, and own implementation. These are qualities of a true leader. Neither identifying issues nor owning resolution is easy, but it will give you visibility and the respect you deserve. As I mentioned in a previous post, every constraint is your best opportunity.