Lean vs. Agile: What Are the Differences and Similarities Between the Two Methodologies?

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Lean and Agile are extremely popular approaches to building software. However, they’re sometimes used interchangeably with little to no regard for the differing origins and features of the methodologies.

While the two are similar, and many software developers will conflate the two even in the professional field, knowing the differences between the two methodologies can be beneficial when deciding how you want to organize the actual processes that drive software development.

Once you know what Lean and Agile are all about, you can decide which one comes out on top in a classic Agile vs. Lean matchup. Keep reading to learn more about how Lean and Agile compare. 

What Is the Lean Methodology?

Lean originates from ‘Lean Manufacturing’, an engineering scheme born out of Japan in the 1930s and credited to Toyota. Several principles guide this engineering philosophy, seven to be exact:

  1. Eliminate waste.
  2. Build quality in.
  3. Create knowledge.
  4. Defer commitment.
  5. Deliver fast.
  6. Respect people.
  7. Optimize the whole.
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In essence, Lean strives to eliminate aspects of engineering or development that are not necessary and focus on the value as a whole. Along the way, the methodology endeavors to prioritize genuinely human values as well such as learning and people in and of themselves.

Perhaps one of the most shocking elements of the lean methodology is that production is based on demand rather than supply. Lean asserts that creating products per request is more productive than amassing products in expectation of a request.

Kaizen is another important characteristic of Lean. Kaizen translates to ‘change for the better’. In Lean, this signifies that task completion should not rely on the same methods over and over and the process should always be optimized wherever possible.

The methodology also specifies that workers should be responsible for defining their method of work. Managers should trust that those who do the job know how to do it best.

What Is the Agile Methodology?

Agile’s origins start with the Agile manifesto. Formally called the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, this manifesto gives a short overview of best practices for software development as derived from other software development frameworks like Scrum and Kanban.

Agile has four defining guidelines, listed below:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

In contrast to a sequence of demand-like sentences that Lean favors, Agile offers that while the methodology values the items on the right of the bolded words, the items on the left ultimately carry more value.

In addition, the manifesto holds 12 principles which can be surmised as the following priorities:

  1. Customer satisfaction
  2. Welcoming changing requirements
  3. Fequent delivery
  4. Project collaboration amongst business people and developers
  5. Having motivated individuals and a matching environment
  6. Effective face-to-face conversation
  7. Working software as a measure of progress
  8. Sustainable development
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence
  10. Simplicity
  11. Self-organization
  12. Regular reflection and adaptation
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Notice that Agile pays particular attention to collaboration in almost every semblance of the word. For example, amplifying individuals and interactions over processes and tools demonstrates that team collaboration is the core of the project.

Similarly, Agile leverages customer collaboration, holding it in a positive light. While a contract can tell developers what to do, ensuring that the final product meets the client’s needs is the end goal regardless of any contract.

The principles of Agile alone emphasize constant communication and governance that is dependent on established cooperation between different individuals involved with the project. 

Lean vs. Agile: Similarities and Differences

One of the reasons why deciding whether to use Lean vs. Agile is so difficult is because the two methodologies are very similar, or at least that’s the story. But let’s take a closer look and make sure. 

Similarities Between Lean and Agile

A couple of standards of both Lean and Agile stand out. The first is their dedication to optimizing the process. In Lean, this is described as ‘optimize the whole’ whereas in Agile it’s expounded as ‘responding to change over following a plan’.

Regardless of these words used, both ideologies see the importance of improving methodologies over time. Whatever your opinions on Lean vs. Agile, doing the same thing, again and again, is a no-no. Instead, development teams should seek diverse ways of accomplishing a task efficiently. 

Something else Lean and Agile has in common is their means of organization. Call it self-organization or respecting people. Either way, both Lean and Agile put the brunt of responsibility on the workers. And this is a good thing.

This means no micro-management and unwanted hierarchies. The software developers are the ones who build the software, so they should be left to do it without any outside nuisances – as long as they’re following the other principles of their respective methodologies.

Continuous learning is another framework the two methodologies share. Lean introduces the idea as kaizen and Agile likens it to technical excellence. The main idea is that all the while developers work on a project to best meet the client’s needs they should invest just as much time in learning new skills and trying new approaches.

It goes without saying how such an attitude would serve software development teams in the long term. Software developers will continue to improve and your business and customer base can only benefit from this improvement.

Differences Between Lean and Agile

The outstanding differences between the two methodologies are related to their core philosophies. Despite the number of principles each methodology carries, Lean vs. Agile is really determined by the foundations of the methodologies.

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Neither methodology explicitly states its core philosophy. But the careful eye can note their differences. For instance, Lean is all about eliminating waste. It stresses a minimalist approach to development in almost all of its principles.

Agile, in contrast, is heavily dependent on cross-collaboration. Collaboration is the gist of the Agile methodology between business partners, developers, end-users, and pretty much anyone involved.

Although enumerating the specific principles of both Agile and Lean will provide a number of differences, it’s best to focus on where these principles stem from in the first place and how they play into each methodology.

Lean vs. Agile: Which Methodology Is the Better Approach?

Choosing which methodology is better for your business might be a challenge. In regards to Lean vs. Agile, both methodologies offer some advantages for the software development process. 

Eliminating waste and maintaining quality will likely affect the speed of the software development process in a favorable way. On the other hand, stressing collaboration will make certain that the customer is satisfied with the final product.

Perhaps the reason Lean and Agile are used interchangeably may be because businesses are subconsciously hoping to combine the two and get the best from both worlds. Now, that’s a stretch.

But the point is choosing one over the other isn’t as important as finding out what principles suit your business best and incorporating them into your software development process.


In summary, Lean takes a minimalist approach to software development and engineering in general. This approach underscores people, learning, and betterment. The Agile methodology highlights the same values but its approach is notably collaborative in turn.

Note that a good project, irrespective of the methodology you choose, starts with a team of qualified software developers. Want to know more about the process of hiring remote developers? Click here!

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With over 10 years of experience in software outsourcing, Alex has assisted in building high-performance teams before co-founding Trio with his partner Daniel. Today he enjoys helping people hire the best software developers from Latin America and writing great content on how to do that!
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