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Lean Principles Applied in Agile

15 August 2017

Shane Billings

Lean development consists of seven basic principles. Like Agile, Lean development is a philosophy and culture that can be applied as a product is created. In contrast to Agile, Lean development does not have specific processes. Lean development is often applied in Agile processes such as Scrum. In fact, the best way to apply the Lean philosophy is through Agile processes.

Lean principle 1: Eliminate waste

Waste can take the form of many things. Partially done work, extra process, scope creep, defects, knowledge loss, poor communication, and management overhead can be considered waste. In short, if it doesn’t add value directly, it’s waste.

In Agile we reduce waste through many practices. Paired programming is used to reduce knowledge loss and increase communication. Groomed backlogs and sprint sanctity reduce scope creep and partially done work. Test-driven development and continuous integration reduce wasted rework and defects.

Lean principle 2: Amplify learning

In a good Lean environment, learning is as valuable as the product itself. Through experimentation, real-world information is gathered to better produce and meet the needs of customers. It goes without saying that failure is a vital part of the learning process.

In Agile, we use the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle to learn. This method is a loop of constant improvement in which a plan is made (Plan), executed (Do), reviewed (Check), and pivots are made (Act). Specifically, in Scrum, the sprint follows this pattern. Even the daily stand-up follows this pattern within the sprint. The end result is that we constantly amplifying learning by being introspective and present in the moment.

Lean principle 3: Decide as late as possible

Deciding early can make us feel good because all work is predicted and secure. Unfortunately, the comfort is an illusion. The truth is that the further out in time a prediction is made, the less accurate it is. Things happen. Assumptions change. Predictions for the near future are much more accurate. Consequently, delaying decision making until the last moment can provide more clarity. In addition, it allows for more options to be available right up until a commitment is made.

Scrum is a good tool to delay decision making. The best example of this is during the sprint planning meeting. Nothing is locked in stone up until the team commits during this meeting. Priorities are fluid and decisions are open beforehand. That flexibility is a result of delayed decisions.

Lean principle 4: Deliver as fast as possible

Delivering fast maximizes learning through experimentation. It forces the team to reduce waste. The value is clearly evident in reaching the market before the competition.

Applied in Scrum, we can release at the end of each sprint. If we apply continuous integration and delivery, we may even release faster.

Lean principle 5: Empower the team

In contrast to traditional management, in which the team is told what to do, Lean development encourages a team to take the lead. The end result is that as the group capitalizes on the knowledge of the whole, rather than the knowledge of a few individuals, there is an increase in creativity, productivity, and engagement.

Scrum is empowering, because it defines roles that break tradition. Trust is given to the team as they decide how they will produce. Deadlines are defined by the team. Product owners only define what the product will be, not how to do it.

Lean principle 6: Build integrity in

The focus should not only be on what we produce but how we produce it. Build the right thing and build it right. The end result is higher quality and a solid preparation for future growth.

The team owns how a product is produced. A retrospective in Scrum is a good tool to address integrity.

Lean principle 7: See the whole

Paradigms influence decisions. Having a vision of a single portion of a business, system, product, or team will cause a much different outcome than if the view takes into account the whole. How often has someone made a decision that optimizes their portion of work at the expense of another? Was the outcome a net positive? When silos are present, so is optimization of one piece at the expense of another.

The single backlog is meant to combat the myopic view. Product owners are to reach out to all stakeholders and customers to represent all of their interests. Teams are cross functional to break down silos and increase the mentality of the whole.

Whether or not we knew we were doing it in our Agile practices, we were also practicing Lean. Done right, Agile and Lean work hand in hand to benefit each other. Some would even say that they are so closely related that they are the same.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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