Saturday, 31 January 2015

Lean Is Not Agile

Lean Software Development ostensibly tries to apply many of the principles of Lean Manufacturing to software development. I first remember reading about Lean Manufacturing, and the Japanese Quality Assurance movement, more than 20 years ago - before I had even heard of Scrum and well before the Agile Manifesto. In fact when I first read about XP (in '98 or '99) I remember thinking that a lot of ideas came from the quality assurance movement and even Lean.

However, in the last few years I have seen a lot of people saying or assuming that Lean Software Development is a "variety of Agile", like XP, Scrum, etc are. For example, I recently saw an advertisement for a course at a reasonably well respected university on SCRUM vs LEAN: Agile Methodologies Analysed and Compared.

Let's be clear on this, Lean is not a variety of Agile.
“ Lean is not
a variety
of Agile ”

Brief History

Lean manufacturing grew up as part of the Japanese Quality Assurance Movement around the middle of the last century. This movement was a major contributing factor in Japan's rise in a few decades to be the world's manufacturing powerhouse. The main focus of Lean Manufacturing is eliminating waste in its many forms.

The success of Japan's QA movement meant the ideas spread to other countries and many different industries. The ideas of QA and Lean Manufacturing found their way into SQA (software quality assurance) around the early 1990's. A great deal of them also found their way into Agile (perhaps via XP) in the late 1990's, but Agile is more than just a rehashing of the ideas of SQA and Lean.

A fundamental principle of QA/Lean is the concept of "Right First Time", which is trying to do things properly by eliminating mistakes. Agile outright rejected this idea, not in all things, but in the most crucial aspect of the software development process - how the software is specified and designed.

Agile is based on evolving the design based on responsive feedback. The assumption is that waste is unavoidable and that an emphasis on eliminating waste is counter-productive.

Lean Software Development

About 10 years ago Mary and Tom Poppendieck wrote a book called Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, which apparently started a Lean movement "within Agile". I think I first heard of this book a few years ago but I have only just started reading it. I haven't had time to read all of it yet, but what I have read I agree with absolutely. It explains many of the principles and practices of Agile really well.

The only problem I have with the book is that it tries to apply "Lean Manufacturing" to justify Agile practices. The implication is that the core idea behind Agile is the lean philosophy of eliminating waste. This I find entirely fallacious.

The critical flaw in the premise of the book is demonstrated by this direct quote:

  Just as manufacturing processes are continuously improved by production workers, so must a software system be continuously improved by developers.
  - see Tool 19: Refactoring on page 137

The problem here is that it is confusing two different things: the manufacturing process and the product being manufactured.

A core principle of Lean Manufacturing and QA in general is to attempt to continually improve the process by which a product is created. But the actual product is not normally modified only the way in which it is made. For example, a watch manufacturer does not sell a watch (version 1.0) with only an hour hand, with the promise that later upgrades would add features such as a minute hand, increased accuracy, etc.

Applying this principle from Lean Manufacturing to software development means continually improving the way the software is developed. That is, Lean does not say to continuously refine the software (the product), only the process.

Rework is a QA term meaning work that has to be fixed or repeated because it was not done correctly the first time.
Hence the primary application of Lean ideas to software would be to improve that part of the process which far and away causes the most mistakes and rework - poorly understood, poorly communicated and continually changing requirements. Lean Manufacturing says to eliminate mistakes in the development process. In other words we must look at how to remove mistakes in the requirements.

By applying Lean Manufacturing principles to software development we must try harder to get the requirements right the first time. This is intended to avoid the enormous waste caused by repeatedly changing the design and the code. But this idea of BDUF is now generally regarded as futile.


BDUF stands for Big Design Up Front and is the name given by Agilists for the way that software is normally developed using waterfall methodology. 

Decades of experience and studies have shown that, no matter how much effort is put into the initial design, there will be a disparity between what users need and what the software actually does.

I discussed this recently in Agile Design.
Agile Software Development

Agile takes the opposite approach to that of Lean Manufacturing. The assumption is that you can never get the requirements right the first time. There will always be mistakes.

The Agile approach is to start with the very basics of what you know, creating a minimal working initial version and then evolve the design based on feedback.

Software Development vs Manufacturing

Lean tries to take ideas from a manufacturing process and apply it to the software development process. However, these processes are very different - eg:
  • Manufacturing is about making many identical copies of a product. Every software product is different.
  • Manufacturing involves a repetitive process. Although there is some repetition in software development many things are unique to a project.
  • Eliminating even a small waste in manufacturing can make a large cost saving. The cost of eliminating waste in the software development process often outweighs the saving.
It should not be assumed that principles beneficially applied to manufacturing are similarly beneficial to the software development process.

Software Development vs Engineering

OK, software development is not like manufacturing, but isn't it like the design as opposed to the manufacture of products?

On the surface, this argument seems much more reasonable than the one above. A software developer is just another type of engineer; just as a civil engineer designs bridges or an aeronautical engineer designs planes, so a software engineer designs programs.

This is getting a bit off track but it seems relevant to clarify this here. Creating software is not like creating physical objects. There are important reasons when designing physical objects to get a whole lot of things right up front. For example, you don't want to be almost finished as skyscraper when you realise the foundations are inadequate. Software does not suffer (as much) from these sort of limitations and so can be easily evolved as required (subject to use of Agile practices such as Unit Tests). I discussed this at length in the Software is Different section of Agile Design.

The thing to remember: software developers are not engineers. The idea of "software engineering" has bugged me for many years and I will probably write about it in this blog soon.


I should be clear that the QA (and Lean) share a lot in common with Agile. I touched on this in SQA and Agile Methodologies. Some examples are:
  • emphasis on JIT and deciding as late as possible
  • customer focus
  • automation of repetitive tasks
  • retrospectives and continuous improvement
  • importance of visibility of the process
  • quality is everyone's responsibility
  • empowering workers to make decisions
  • emphasis on training and learning
Despite that I do not believe some of the QA ideas typified by slogans such a "Right First Time" and "Quality Is Free" are always applicable. I might discuss this further in the future.


The first principle of Lean Manufacturing is to eliminate waste. This has been shown to work well for manufacturing. For a repetitive process designed to mass produce identical products, eliminating even the smallest waste can produce large savings.

However, this principle of Lean Manufacturing cannot be applied to the software development process. Every software project is different. The main type of "waste" that traditionally (and still commonly) occurs in software development is due to rework (of the design and the code) due to the requirements. To eliminate this waste the Lean philosophy says to improve the process - in other words try harder to get the requirements right from the start.

Agile takes the opposite tack. We start with the minimum requirements needed to get something working and evolve the design based on responsive feedback. In effect, Agile methods (especially Unit Tests) provide a means to deal with the "waste" in a far simpler and less costly manner than trying to eliminate it. This waste in unavoidable and trying to eliminate it is counter-productive.

This is not to say that Lean does not have anything to offer the software industry. In fact most of the principles of Lean are also shared by Agile. Even the philosophy of eliminating waste can be usefully applied to many areas of software development. But at their heart Lean and Agile are diametrically opposed.

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