Lean and Agile origin stories

From the comments on last week’s Agile and Lean are just toolkits, right?:

Regarding “respect for how these different schools came into being” do you have any thoughts on how to do this? Besides being there at the creation or talking 1-1 with the creators what else is there? There is very little documentation… 🙂
Michael de la Maza (@hearthealthyscr) 

I’m going to argue that in the case of both Lean and Agile, the documentation and the origin story are almost one and the same thing!

Let’s start with Lean and the book The Machine that Changed the World by Womack, Jones, and Roos (1991). It’s a western (MIT) perspective on the Toyota Production System (TPS), and its publication is what brought the term ‘Lean production’ into currency. Its success spawned other books, notably Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones (1996).

An refreshingly honest 21st century perspective on Lean as provided by (say) Mike Rother’s 2009 book Toyota Kata suggests that Lean’s early incarnation was overly tool-focussed and paid insufficient attention to the management systems inside Toyota that brought those tools about. Dig a bit and you find that Taichi Ohno provides in 1988 an excellent first-hand account of the thinking that gave rise to TPS long before Lean was ever a thing.

For Agile, the origin story is very much a document, the Agile Manifesto. A bunch of guys gather at a ski resort in 2001 and produce a values statement that catalysed a movement.  It’s not perfect, but this matters a lot less than its authenticity and it has stood the test of time very well.

The manifesto’s “items on the right” identifies a number of things regarded by some as obstacles and by others as “doing it properly”. This ironic tension isn’t just clever, it helps to describe the conditions prevailing at the time. The historians will be grateful 🙂

While we’re here (and by way of a warning to potential commenters): I have nothing but contempt for ignorant pieces of ‘advice’ such as these:

  • All you need to know about Lean is that Agile (or Agile method X) was inspired by it
  • Lean inspired Agile so ignore Agile and go to the source

By all means specialise, dig deep. If you’re sufficiently motivated, try to take something as far as it is possible to go – that’s one important way in which the community as a whole gets to learn. But don’t do them (or yourself) a disservice by minimising the contributions of others. Is it really that hard to celebrate them both – separately and together?

Commercial break: If this integrative message appeals, you’ll likely enjoy the new Agendashift book, which integrates Lean and Agile thinking along with other ingredients in a 21st century, outcome-centric approach to change and transformation. My first book Kanban from the Inside (2014) amply demonstrates it too. Don’t miss our November workshops in Cape Town and London. Check out our partner programme. And if this is all new to you, start here.


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