How agile is lean?

What are the differences between Agile and Lean? When do you successfully apply which method? What are the pitfalls after making a wrong choice? These are questions I’m regularly asked by our customers. I’ll try to provide answers in this blog.

Lean has been successfully utilised within large organisations for over 30 years, so I will not dwell on that in this blog. Additionally, Agile has really broken through over the past 10 years as a new method leading to good results. Fast, Agile and autonomous teams with clear customer targets collaborate increasingly frequently in more and more places. The ING employs this in their App development for mobile banking, Saab develops its new fighter aircraft with this method and John Deer its new farm equipment. Does Agile work anywhere then and is it the breakthrough for any organisation? Or would it be better not to begin in some places?


Agile work refers to bringing together people, processes, connectivity, technique, time and location with the aim of finding the most suitable and effective way to collaborate on a particular task. It’s about working within set guidelines, without limiting ways in which the task can be achieved. It also means eliminating mandatory presence in the workplace and focusing on results and performance.

The best known application of Agile is Scrum. Scrum is used in approximately 70% of Agile projects. The principles of self-managing teams is extensively applied within Scrum. These teams are relatively small and are designated as “squads” by both Spotify as the ING. Rini van Solingen’s book, “The power of Scrum” describes well how it really works and what Scrum means for both the team and the client. Main elements are the autonomy of the team and the direct and frequent contact with clients, followed by a sprint of a few weeks after which a new working prototype is to be delivered. A finished product, thus, that can be tested directly with the client. The key is to obtain clarity from the client regarding the common goal and the product that is to be delivered. The team is multidisciplinary and is not hindered by bureaucracy or a manager, and can make autonomous decisions.

opposites_mAGILE OR LEAN?

An important question is where which method will best work. Agile is a good choice in situations where direct customer contact is required and where new products are developed in collaboration with the client. Agile is less suitable for management functions and procedures with a set order, and a better result may be achieved with Lean tools. As with Lean, the management must switch to the Agile principles and speak the same language as the employee.

Agile’s main goal is to delight the client. The principles upon which Agile is built are:

  • People are more important than processes and tools: projects are organised around motivated people who are facilitated to work independently.
  • Working prototypes are more important than comprehensive documentation: people who can directly see and discuss their own input with the client feel more appreciated and will develop more rapidly.
  • Respond to feedback rather than following a rigid plan: minutely detailed plans are wasted if the client’s wishes aren’t flexibly included.
  • Work together with the client rather than closing involved contracts: Clients are seldom able to predict what they really want, so rapidly provided prototypes, working products and services are a prerequisite.

If your department or individual responsibility fits the above principles, implementing Agile is a good choice. The following table offers a quick overview as to whether your work environment justifies an Agile approach or another approach:

Apply Agile Apply a continuous improvement
method like Lean of Six Sigma
Product development in an environment with constantly changing customer requests. Control functions where change is a treat, the customer wishes are fixed and there is a small knowledge component.
Direct customer contact is possible and the customer demands vary and evolve during the project. Projects where the starting points are very clear from the onset like the building of big infrastructures. Making changes at the end phase of the project is either very expensive or physically impossible.
Rapidly changing markets are present and to be the first mover is of the utmost importance. Public functions like law&justice are also more suitable for another method then Agile because they have to stay neutral and can only operate without transparency.


Agile methodology fits well within our vision of the self-educating organisation in which it’s essential that people quickly learn to independently achieve increasingly better results. Agile is one of the approaches that we at HillFive are pleased to implement with our clients. Agile is now used in many more environments than just IT and can greatly improve collaboration between different sectors.

At HillFive, we’re careful to not recommend Agile unilaterally as the new solution. Thorough research as to the client’s needs is important before a choice can be made for a particular tool or management philosophy. Lean, Six Sigma and the Theory of Constraints remain approaches that bring better results in many cases. Before you start with Agile, it’s very important to assess the degree of the team’s autonomy and indicate the management style within the company. A team that’s worked with a directive management style for many years can not change all at once and instantly make independent decisions. Management must, of course, be a part of this change in culture.


Popular techniques used in Agile such as Kanban, work analysis and lead time reduction are also part of Lean. This means that Agile uses truly proven techniques to achieve continuous performance improvement. However, applying Agile at the expense of all else is anything but Lean. Make no mistake, some people who are not good at planning will soon hide behind the idea that working without planning is the result of Agile, which is, in turn, responsible for results no longer being achieved. It can also bring you further afield if you haven’t determined when and how Agile is to be used. It’s therefore important to be careful that you don’t start with Agile because Lean does not work. Only begin with it if it matches the maturity of the team, the needs of the client and the type of work. Perhaps you just haven’t gotten Lean up and running properly and there are some fundamental building blocks that need to be filled in? The flight forward to another new panacea because the other has failed only costs unnecessary time and money.

We at HillFive are very enthusiastic about the good results that can be gained by choosing the most appropriate approach. For product development and prompt response to client changes and questions, Agile is the solution we’ve been waiting for. It provides a large number of companies and departments with the perfect suitable solution for continuous performance improvement with a feeling of self-worth in the workplace.

If you’d like to comment or discuss anything covered in this blog, please e-mail me:

Have fun today!


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