Lean and Agile – The Difference

Lean and Agile are often used simultaneously when talking about agility and agile frameworks. A lot of people tend to forget these are two separate things – neither did I fully understand the difference in the beginning of my career. Hence, I started to think about it and ask questions to gain understanding. This article aims to help sort out what Agile means and how lean processes can complement agile frameworks.

Indeed, when researching I read sentences like ‘Lean in itself is Agile so there is no need to combine them since they are already the same’ and though everybody is free to interpret things their way – yet I need to say, no, you should be clear about them not being the same.

What is Agile?

First of all, Agile for me is no framework. It is a mindset. It ain’t Scrum, it ain’t SAFe – it is a mindset. Scrum and SAFe are frameworks based on this agile mindset. They all got aspects in common such as the iterative kind of work for example, but in the end, you can’t successfully implement one of them if your people didn’t understand what Agile in itself means. Understanding and internalizing certain values and aspects of an underlying concept, well that is – at least for me – the embodiment of a mindset. Of course, that mindset is kind of a framework but I’d rather want to call it a guideline on which tools to use than actually a framework, because frameworks are set, mindsets guide you through decision making and the project’s process.

In a previous article we outlined what that means. Shortly summarizing, it means that Agile itself is no method you can simply apply to your team. It is a state of mind, a way to behave and think during your daily work. Having an agile mindset means to understand the underlying manifesto which is:



Possessing an agile mindset means you are open to change, that you are not afraid to fail but learn from mistakes, you care about people (no matter if peers or customers) and you are keen to work self-organized to create value for your organisation and your business partners as fast as possible. Having an agile mindset also means all these things are naturally for you and come first – over old, bureaucratic structures. Agile is a way of behaviour, a way to work, a certain type of personal values you base your daily decisions on. It ain’t a method with clear steps which you simply follow to achieve best results. Or do you question every single action you do in your personal life? Not really, you rather follow your personal values and mindset, on what you think is right or wrong, on what naturally feels good to do. Basically, this is the main difference. Agile is a construct in which we work and which if you internalized it (unconsciously) base your actions and decisions on. It is a social guideline kind of and can go as far as being an organizational culture. At least that is how I understood and interpreted it after research and experience in the field. And by the way – that is exactly why a true agile mindset is so hard to implement within the business, because you can’t just blueprint it.


What is Lean?

If you put it very simple – or if I explain my understanding of Lean in one short sentence – the main difference of Lean to Agile is that Lean is a tool, a method, a process not something like a mindset or way of behaviour. It’s how you do things to get better results. There are steps and a clear process to follow to improve your work and if you follow them you probably improve your business (please keep in mind Lean comes from manufacturing!).

As a reminder here are the Lean principles:

  1. Identify Value
  2. Map the Value Stream
  3. Create Flow
  4. Establish a Pull
  5. Continuous Improvement


and the House of Lean:

One could say they overlap with the Agile mindset’s principles and manifesto, also because if you truly implement Lean at its core you end up with teams like agile ones. And maybe that is why it is so confusing sometimes. Especially since the original Lean principles from the 1940’s sound just about agile:

  1. Value – provide value from a customer’s perspective, not just doing tasks on your to-do-list.
  2. Value stream –end-to-end list of actions required to build a product valued by the customer.
  3. Flow –ensure that the value stream continuously delivers value.
  4. Pull –producing on-demand, only when needed.
  5. Perfection –continuously improve value streams and products in order to achieve zero defects.

But in the end Lean is a method focused on process optimization and it became even more process focused throughout the years, when it was applied to software development. Agile is how you think and behave. Just as Scrum is not equal to Agile or SAFe is not equal to Agile. They are all tools to support your organization operationally implementing Agile.


So yes, they do overlap, but yet are two different things. And yes, you can combine them (you probably should). I’ll share my thoughts on how to do so in my next essay. For now with all the putting together and mixing defintions, keep in mind they are neither mutually exclusive nor congruent.


Author: Melanie Bühne

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