Whether used separately or together, agile and lean are here to stay. Now it’s just a matter of how to describe the combination of agile and lean as a business process and how to make it fit within that business, according to experts in the processes.

“The best way I can describe it is if you look at how agile and lean have been used in the last decade, and in the decade from 2000 to 2010, agile has predominantly been a software development methodology and lean has predominantly been a manufacturing process,” said Alex Adamopoulos, CEO of lean and agile consultancy emergn. “And in the next decade, which we kind of have already started, I believe they are both going to become the transformation agents in business.”

Aside from defining the combination itself, organizations also have a hard time defining the best combination for the business and its projects, explained Mike Gilpin, research director at Forrester Research. One project, such as making a system compliant with certain federal regulations, may call strictly for an agile approach, while another project, like making a customer-facing website, is considered highly valuable to the business and therefore would warrant a lean approach instead, he said.

To help organizations reach the best working combination, Gilpin said, “We discuss process frameworks that include elements from lean, agile and other practices. From there, we use these frameworks to consult with clients about their situation, identify the ‘pains,’ and make recommendations drawing from the framework. It’s that sort of approach that guides the design of a hybrid approach for each particular client development shop.”

Adamopoulos agreed, adding that people are starting to realize that both agile and lean add value, but they are still trying to figure out how to combine them and extract from them what is needed to best fit their organization.

“As I learned more about lean, I was intrigued the most by the Kanban board because it’s all about workflow,” said Ted Young, development manager at Guidewire Software, which serves the property and casualty insurance industry.

For at least six months now, Young and his team have implemented this lean-camp concept, despite doing agile well prior to the adjustment. “We were all on board with agile and getting results,” he said, “but the lead time before getting feedback was too long and we were doing too much at once.”

Additionally, the Kanban board significantly helped with single-piece flow and work-in-progress limits, Young said. “I now have four developers work on the same thing rather than do four different things. It gets things through faster, it gets feedback faster and it gets closer to being done. And work in progress limits helps us see where we’re getting stuck and expedites the process,” he added.

Aside from implementing the Kanban board, Young said he plans to incrementally adopt more lean principles, and he is starting to bring his company’s software users in earlier for feedback.

At an October agile seminar in New York City, Urbancode technical evangelist Jeffrey Fredrick said lean is both the precursor and future to agile, and he finds that lean is becoming a goal just as much as agile is.

“A lot of early agilists were inspired by lean manufacturing and wanted to bring similar ideas into software development,” he said. However, he added, agile methodologies such as Scrum and XP are limited in scope, prescriptive and incomplete. “It’s designed to give you rapid feedback, but doesn’t give you much guidance with what to do with it…This is where solutions (which I find are gaining traction) from the lean camp come in,” he said.

But emergn’s Adamopoulos asked, “Where is this stuff going? Someone is either going to have to define a new term or they’re going to have to be able to use the two terms together, but be able to have a good definition of what they are.”

The Lean Startup
One person that has taken a crack at defining a new term is Eric Ries, former CTO of IMVU, an online community where members use 3D avatars to create and play games and meet new people. Calling it the “Lean Startup,” he described his terminology as the “next generation or major revision of agile.” It’s the application of lean thinking via open-source software, agile software and iterative development, which can help startups operate with much less waste, he said.

Ries coined the term in 2008 and started the blog “Startup Lessons Learned,” where he discussed his experiences starting software companies. Since then, the Lean Startup idea has taken off as he consults others with similar issues to the ones he had, he said.

The origin of his term started with one particular experience that resonates in Ries’ mind today. In 2004, after a failed software project to create a 3D avatar add-on for instant messaging networks, he said he felt agile betrayed him. “I had committed the biggest waste of all, software that no one wanted, and it was thrown away,” he said.

He said he efficiently cranked out code for six months, “rather than efficiently finding value.” Once it went into public beta, no one would even try the product, he explained.

“I never learned what the customer wanted, and why did it take six months to get there?” Ries said. “I needed to get to the learning part as soon as possible, because building something no one wants doesn’t matter.

“It was these kinds of situations that drove me away from agile and towards the Lean Startup idea.”