ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore the question “Is Agile the new Lean?” I have participated with the program since 2012: see my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program.
No Agile is not the new Lean.
On this blog, in 2008, I wrote about Future Directions for Agile Management:
As I learned about agile software development, what I saw was a great implementation of management improvement practices focused on software development that was very compatible with Deming’s management philosophy and lean thinking practices.
There are many useful concepts, tools and practices within what people refer to as agile software development. And the same can be said for lean. But they are distinct approaches (the links in this post flush out this idea more for those interested in learning more on that topic). That isn’t to say an organization cannot design their own solution that adopts ideas found in each approach. In fact doing so for software development makes sense in my opinion.
I have written about why trying to find a management recipe to follow is a very bad idea. You need to learn, experiment, adjust and keep iterating doing those 3 things.
Another way agile and lean are similar is that often organization try adopting the slogan name (agile or lean) and a couple concepts or practices they haphazardly pick from those methods and then create a management system that is not good.
What those seeking to improve management should do is to study concepts like lean and agile and then create a management system that works in their organization. To transform to what I would consider real lean or agile (instead of just using the name) requires that how management operates, and how work gets done, changes. This rarely happens other than in a small, though sometimes visible ways. Successful transformation requires continual iteration of improvements to the management system itself.
In my opinion the best starting point is to study W. Edwards Deming’s ideas and use that to create a management system that is continually improving. But I believe lean is the next best starting point and for software development I believe agile is the next best starting point.
If you decide to transform your management system using lean management practices as a focus I think you can do great things. I would delve deeply into lean and also learn about Deming and agile software development. And if you decide to create an agile styled management system then do that and learn from Deming and lean as you continually improve. In either case continually iterate and improve they management practices that are used.
In 2014 I wrote about my efforts to manage using ideas from Deming, agile and lean in: Building a Great Software Development Team.
I have explored agile and lean in previous posts: No True Lean Thinking or Agile Software Development (2010) – Agile Software Development and Deming (2014) – Applying Toyota Kata to Agile Retrospectives (2016) – Management Improvement Flavors (2005)
Completely agree! Lean and Agile are highly complementary however, and I expand on this in my new book, Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile https://www.amazon.co.uk/Right-Left-digital-leaders-guide/dp/1789555310/
See also the second of five 5-minute interviews here: https://blog.agendashift.com/2019/09/23/right-to-left-in-five-5-minute-videos/
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Exactly. Management is not like cooking—there are too many complexities and the ingredients never work the same way day-to-day or person-to-person. I’ve seen so many formulaic methods fail only to have managers latch onto their recipe and blame it on the employee, which of course makes things worse.
What’s needed are principles and knowledge: of variation (people are subject to it at all times, and exhibit it themselves always), of systems (the complex influences of work on people and people on work), of psychology (how humans behave and why), and of the limits and fragility of our ability to know at its core (why we must continually respond and improve).
That system (of profound knowledge) is a meta-system: it simply accurately describes the complexities inherent in the reality of managing people and organizations. Methods that cover over or oversimplify that reality tend to fall short; though managers with good instincts for respect and servant leadership can do okay. But we can do better than just okay, if we have the right knowledge.
Yes, John Hunter. Continual improvement of the system of management is a powerful approach that might not be understood by some who want to simply “install” or implement a lean, agile, Deming, TPS, etc. management system. Deming’s model of Production Viewed as a System provides an excellent view of how to perform continual improvement at the organization level. The starting point makes little difference if, as you write, “continual iteration of improvements to the management system itself” is occurring.