What is Lean Software Development and How Does it Compare to Agile?


Lean software development is a programming approach that emphasizes efficiency and waste reduction. The concept stems from the Lean manufacturing movement that developed in the 1980s. While Lean started in the automotive industry, it has become an integral part of software development and is considered a key Agile framework.

Many of the principles that Lean preaches are common sense. In fact, if your team has a history of maximizing resources and cutting out unnecessary processes, you’re likely applying Lean values already.  Despite its sensible principles, teams benefit the most when they consciously apply Lean with a clear understanding of the approach. So, to help shore up your team’s knowledge and appreciation of the concept, we’re explaining the basics of Lean and how it works here.

This blog dives deep into Lean software development, including its meaning, history, principles, and advantages.


What is Lean software development?


Lean software development suggests that projects are often inefficient because teams devote too much time and resources to unneeded features and work. Rather than waste time through unnecessary hand-offs, waiting periods, and poor resource management, Lean prioritizes a process that maximizes resources and optimizes productivity.

Anyone that has worked on a programming project will understand Lean’s premise. Too often, teams spend inordinate amounts of time on tasks that ultimately contribute nothing of value to projects. From building out needlessly detailed documentation to spending time developing features that won’t enter the final product, development time can be pointlessly wasted.

Lean pursues an efficient programming process by cutting out useless processes and tasks, colloquially referred to as “non-value add.” Instead, it brings “value-add” deliverables and processes to the forefront, ensuring that teams spend their time on essential tasks.

Lean is also typically referred to as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) strategy, underlining another aspect of its approach. With an MVP, teams focus on the product’s core functionality, release a bare-bones version, take feedback from users, and then iterate based on their learning.

In this sense, Lean takes minimalism, ongoing learning, and fast delivery as central principles. Because of its uncomplicated approach to programming, Lean empowers teams to identify exactly what they should be working on now versus features that could potentially wait until later or could be eliminated altogether.


History of Lean


The Lean software development philosophy originated in the manufacturing industry. Today, Lean is not just a central approach in the tech industry; it has found great acceptance in management, business, and other sectors.

Lean first emerged as a proprietary production process at Toyota. The process, called the Toyota Production System (TPS), was developed as part of the company’s Toyota Way philosophy.

Lean ManufacturingBefore implementing TPS, automotive manufacturing had a reputation for high resource turnover and uncertain sales numbers. Factories routinely had overproduction or defective production problems, and unnecessary waste of raw materials was almost deemed par for the course.

But Toyota found a better, more efficient way of working with TPS and its Lean approach. The philosophy set out to eliminate waste, encourage quality and innovation, reduce product defects, and increase productivity.  It did this exceptionally well. Lean eventually spread to other automotive firms and manufacturing industries, where it gained the name Lean manufacturing.

The approach first entered the tech industry when Mary and Tom Poppendeick applied Lean principles to programming in their 2003 book, Lean Software Development. Lean spread alongside the Agile development revolution, helping programming teams achieve efficiency and higher quality.



Difference between Lean and Agile


Considering that Lean emerged in software programming when Agile development was formally expressed, there’s often confusion about the approaches and their relative scope.

Lean and Agile are quite similar in their principles. For instance, Lean incorporates some of the core values underlying the Agile mindset. As with Agile, Lean emphasizes people over processes as it encourages self-organizing teams who set the pace and deliver the product. Likewise, both approaches encourage an action-oriented mindset that incorporates fast delivery backed by ongoing learning and iteration. Because Lean implements so many Agile values so well, Lean is often counted as one of many Agile frameworks – alongside others like Kanban and Extreme Programming (XP).

With that said, there are subtle differences between Lean and Agile. Lean emphasizes creating efficient processes, while Agile aims to build better products. While Agile helps teams develop products that deliver on customer needs and expectations, Lean wants to optimize productivity and service delivery.


Core principles of Lean


1. Eliminate waste


The name evokes this principle: Lean will cut out whatever doesn’t add value during programming. Waste can intrude in the process in many ways, as we’ll explain with the seven wastes of Lean below. Lean encourages a light programming operation that maximizes resources and produces only valuable work by eliminating waste.

Before and after each iteration, project managers will discuss the project, identify bottlenecks, isolate waste, and plan to remove it.


2. Empower the team


Lean values people over processes, recognizing that it is people who make software, not the other way around. As a result, team members receive respect for their knowledge and work. Respect is conveyed with open communication, psychological safety, and healthy conflict.

Likewise, leaders resist the urge to micromanage, instead giving teams the space to work through problems on their own. Another aspect is that teams are independent and cross-functional; they have all the skillsets and people they need for a functional iteration.


3. Deliver fast


Lean emphasizes efficiency and a streamlined process with its focus on what matters. When applied correctly, accelerated processes become a natural result of Lean software development. This is because you have removed barriers limiting your team and eliminated wasteful tasks.

Additionally, as its MVP name implies, Lean promotes rapid development and delivery. Developers launch quickly, learn from customer feedback, and incorporate improvements in the next iteration. They fail fast, learn quickly, and therefore arrive at a quality final product earlier than traditional models allow.


4. See the wholeLean Principles


Haste often makes waste, which is why Lean encourages a long view. Yes, speed is good because it forces you to focus on what is essential. But speed should never come at the expense of a solid plan backed by a deep understanding of each project’s downstream effect.

Unbridled haste can lead to inadequate testing and missed errors. These will, in turn, foster stalled production, unhappy clients, budget overruns, etc. To combat this, Lean helps organizations achieve a system view of the project with milestones and end goals marked out clearly.


5. Build integrity in


Lean implements various tactics to enhance and maintain project integrity throughout programming. These include pair programming, which maximizes developer output while reducing miscommunication and test-driven development, which implements a system of checks for constant quality assurance.

Likewise, Lean incorporates incremental development, so projects grow gradually with rising quality through relevant feedback.


6. Amplify learning


Lean recognizes that learning is an ongoing process, so it includes structures that let the team learn from the build and one another. These structures include code reviews, commented code, pair programming, and knowledge base sharing. No one gets to be the lone wolf or superstar because the team constantly shares knowledge and grows together.

This makes the team more capable overall, eases onboarding, and bakes resiliency into the team even if some team members leave.


7. Decide late


Lean looks to balance early planning with a flexible long-term approach. Because final decisions impact projects, the team only commits irrevocably when all data points are intact and fully understood. While this sounds like hesitancy, it’s not.

Deciding late, shifts the focus from long-range planning to an incremental, evidence-based approach. The team makes small decisions and seeks validation with each iteration. Working this way ensures that final decisions become easier and more likely to be correct.


Seven wastes of Lean


Eliminating redundancy is so central to Lean that it identifies wasteful habits that teams need to watch for. Mary and Tom Poppendeick adapted the original seven wastes of Lean into software development.


7 Wastes of Lean

1. Partially done work


Work in progress (WIP) adds no value to the client until complete. Meanwhile, it keeps resources busy and prevents value-add tasks from completion. Partly done work includes half-coded features, unverified code, and incomplete documentation.

Using WIP limits, like Kanban, is a simple way to eliminate this waste. The limited programming space will force teams to prioritize only valuable features.


2. Extra processes


Unnecessary processes prolong programming time and diminish effectiveness because your team is tired from following procedures that ultimately add nothing.

Examples of extra processes include complicated work arrangements, needless planning activities, and unnecessarily detailed documentation. An excellent way to diminish waste here is to keep operations light and simple and plan as per requirement.


3. Extra features


Software features can be loosely categorized into must-have, should-have, may-have, and won’t-have. Lean says cut out won’t-have features and shelve may-have features. Focus on core functionality first, then turn to should-have features next.

If resources permit, the team can consider may-have features, but only if they add value to the final product.


4. Task switching


Every time a team member switches between tasks, they lose some of the time they could have spent making progress. Reducing this waste can include limiting WIP or keeping teams contiguous so that they build familiarity and need less time to orient between tasks.


5. Waiting


While some delay is unavoidable during programming (for instance, when testing or awaiting customer feedback/approval), too much delay is bad. Having face-to-face discussions, maintaining a tight feedback loop, and implementing continuous testing are ways to decrease waste.


6. Motion/Hand-off


Hand-off waste is most apparent in the traditional programming model, where projects get developed in stages. Every time the project is transferred to a new team (designers, developers, testers), more time gets lost in transit. At worst, vital information can get missing, thereby delaying the project further.

This waste can be diminished with cross-functional teams, so there are fewer hand-offs overall.


7. Defects


Bugs are to coding as ants are to exposed sugar. In both cases, preventing trouble means ensuring things are airtight and employing ongoing monitoring to avoid trouble.

In essence, start testing your code early and continue testing throughout the project lifecycle.


Roles and responsibilities in Lean


A Lean environment typically consists of three roles: Lean Master, Project Leader, and Team Members.

  • Lean Master: The Lean Master is usually an expert in this approach and may have worked with the client before. Their responsibilities include selecting the team, coaching them in Lean development, maintaining workflow, etc.
  • Project Leader: The Project Leader works as both a motivator and organizer. They lead the team and take point on projects, facilitate team improvement, and remove barriers to progress.
  • Team Members: As experts, the Team Members do the actual programming and are responsible for shipping features. The team is usually small (6-9 members) and cross-functional (comprising developers, designers, testers, analysts, and testers).


Benefits and challenges of Lean



  • Removes useless process stages, thereby streamlining team functions
  • Prioritizes essential features and accelerates time to market
  • Eliminates waste and maximizes resources, thereby increasing productivity
  • Promotes collaboration and team learning, which can also boost morale


  • Large organizations and teams might struggle to implement Lean due to their natively bureaucratic approach
  • Risk of suboptimization, which is when the project gets broken into consumable parts and problems solved in isolation without considering the whole


Despite these challenges, there’s no doubt that Lean provides a method to maximize efficiency and do your best work. If you have been concerned with resource waste and are interested in a nimble iterative approach to software development, then Lean could be the framework for you.

Do you have any questions about how Lean works or where it might provide the most value for your organization? With over 25 years of experience helping our clients implement processes that help accelerate business, i3solutions has the expertise you need to understand how Lean Software Development can work for you.  Contact us today.  Our consultants would be delighted to listen.




on What is Lean Software Development and How Does it Compare to Agile?.
  1. |

    This blog was very interesting to read. Software development is discussed in depth in order to boost today’s business productivity. It was a pleasure to read your post!

  2. Jack Dann

    Hi, this is Jack Dann, I’m a beginner in the software development field and I would like to learn new things about software development services and processes. Now I got a clear-cut idea about lean software development.

    Thanks for regarding this article it’s so useful to me.

  3. Amy Jackson

    Thanks i was writing assignment on the software development. and specially for lean software development. this article has helped me so much and my sir were also impressed with my notes 🙂

  4. zappkode solution

    Great blog submitted to understand about the lean software development. In a blog included meaning, history, principles, and advantages of lean software development.

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