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Mixing Lean and Agile – Is Lean in Conflict with Agile?

I’ve participated in several discussions and presentations lately where the subject of Lean and Agile came up and I think the relationship of the two is very interesting. If you pursued each of those approaches to the extreme and tried maximize what you would get out of each independently, they would tend to pull you in different directions:

  • Lean emphasizes reducing “waste” and Agile emphasizes flexibility and adaptivity to meet customer needs.
  • Those two approaches are not totally compatible with each other; however, they are not necessarily incompatible either. It just requires some skill to blend them together in the right proportions to fit a given situation
Lean and Agile
Wall illustrating the five principles of Lean Management

Here’s an example, Michael Nir recently made a presentation at an Agile Boston meeting about “The Agile PMO” which was based on his book of the same name. Michael indicated that a key potential role of an Agile PMO is to reduce waste in an organization and that goal is very consistent with Lean. An example of that could be under-utilization of people in the organization.

How Does Lean Reduce Waste?

Michael indicated that a key potential role of an Agile PMO is to reduce waste in an organization and that goal is very consistent with Lean. For example,

  • Under-utilization of people in the organization,
  • Under-utilization of resources, or
  • Less than optimum utilization of resources

could certainly be a major source of waste in an organization. There are a number of ways that a PMO can reduce waste:

Utilization of Specialized Resources

If specialized resources that are not dedicated to project teams (such as DBA’s) are not well-planned and coordinated across teams:

  • Project teams may be idle waiting for these specialized resources, or
  • The specialized resources might not be fully-utilized waiting for work from project teams

Project Portfolio Management

If a project portfolio is not well-managed, allocation of resources to project teams may not be not well-aligned with company business goals and priorities

Project Management of Individual Projects

If individual projects are not well-managed and are allowed to go off track, the allocation of resources to projects may not be optimized to maximize the business results for the company

Development Process Definition and Training


  • The development process is not well-defined,
  • Tools aren’t adequate to support the process, and/or
  • Project teams are not well-trained to execute the process

the execution of the process will not be consistent across teams and may not be as efficient and effective as it could be

In all of those areas, a PMO might add value by reducing waste but how far do you go with that? 

Can You Reduce Waste to Zero?

Carried to an extreme, a focus on simply reducing waste could easily become dysfunctional.  Michael mentioned that waste in some organizations could be as high as 95%.  What would happen if you attempted to reduce waste to 0%?

  • First, reducing waste to 0% is probably an unrealistic and impossible goal. No business is totally predictable where everything is known in advance to enable perfect prioritization, planning, and scheduling of resources
  • Second, putting too much emphasis on reducing waste would would mean superimposing a level of control and standardization on projects. That could easily be inconsistent with achieving the flexibility and adaptivity required by an Agile approach

What’s the Right Answer?

Given that conflict, what’s the right answer?  This is not necessarily an easy problem to solve. It will take some skill to figure out the right blend of:

  1. Focusing on lean and reducing waste and
  2. Preserving the flexibility and adaptivity required by an Agile approach. 

There clearly seems to be an optimum point between the two extremes of focusing on those two extremes individually. A PMO could probably perform a value-added role in helping an organization find that optimum point.

Finding that optimum point is yet another example of the need for “systems thinking”.  Here’s a previous post I wrote on that subject:

What is Systems Thinking and Why is it Important?

People many times like to over-simplify what is really much more complex and reduce it to a simple, binary choice between two extremes: 

  • “Agile” versus “Waterfall” is one example of that and
  • “Lean” versus “Agile” is another example. 

Overall Summary

On the surface, Lean and Agile might appear to be in conflict with each other. If you pursued each approach individually and mechanically without really understanding the principles behind each at a deeper level, they could easily be in conflict. 

On the other hand, if you take take a systems-thinking approach to understand these seemingly disparate approaches at a deeper level. you will begin to develop a fresh new perspective to see them as complementary to each other rather than competitive.

Michael made a key point that it is a matter of focusing on value versus control and he’s absolutely right.  Here are some ways a PMO could add value:

  • Better defining processes and tools,
  • Providing training to people, and
  • Doing some level of project portfolio management and resource planning of people

Each of those can potentially add value; however, it does take some skill to determine the optimum point beyond which it stops producing value and starts to become dysfunctional.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on the “Understanding Agile”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

5 thoughts on “Mixing Lean and Agile – Is Lean in Conflict with Agile?”

  1. Hi Chuck,
    Thanks for providing clarity on the topic of Lean and Agile, I couldn’t agree more.
    Eliminating all waste is indeed theoretical, and yet even if it is achievable, it would remove the degrees of freedom – flexibility we require in our process.
    Actually, in Lean implementation in production that I led, we used the concept of one-piece-flow – (zero waste) as a guide. When running the thought experiment of one piece flow – we recognized soon enough that it would expose us to dangers in our supply chain. I development – following one piece flow – in a Kanban system for example – would result in resource under-utilization that is not acceptable.
    Having said all that – as I mentioned in the keynote – most organizations err on too much process and are reluctant to rethink their system and reduce waste.

    Thanks again


  2. Patrick Devick

    Nice to see it explained that Lean and Agile are needed both in a well balanced way. An organization needs abilities to exploit their current processes and also to explore possibilities for innovation. Lean and Agile are nice methods to achieve this.

  3. when you say:

    “Lean emphasizes reducing “waste” and Agile emphasizes flexibility and adaptivity to meet customer needs.”

    it looks to me that this sentence is a too simplistic view of Lean where reducing waste is *just* one principle? or I am missing something?

    1. Yes, you’re missing the point of the article. This is not a complete dissertation on what Lean is. It’s simply a comparison of the primary emphasis of Lean to Agile and the primary emphasis of Lean is reducing waste.

  4. Hello Chuck,

    Thanks for posting this article.

    Lean has two pillars and five principles (https://leanpm.org/lean-project-management-lean-concepts/):
    1. Continuous Improvement, which includes Challenge, Kaizen and Genchi Genbutsu
    2. Respect for People, which includes Respect and Teamwork

    The primary emphasis of Lean is to create value in a continuously improving way. The Lean definition of a project says: “A project is a temporary value stream, aimed at creating or improving the value stream system of an organization or its customers, thus creating value for the organization’s stakeholders.”

    Many of the concepts of Lean are adopted by Agile and there is a trend Agile to be branded with Lean: Lean-Agile mindset, Lean-Agile Portfolio Management, Agile Lean Scrum Master, etc.

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