The difference between design thinking, lean and agile

“In a nutshell all three these concepts are mindsets (or principles that inspire culture) that when practiced correctly helps organizations develop new skills, abilities and competencies to respond to the modern world.”

Agile, Lean and Desing Thinking

“They are not the same thing but complement each other so well that they might as well be”

You would be hard pressed to go into a modern software development environment nowadays and not hear these three terms being used liberally by business and tech alike.

However like so many industry concepts you will find that people tend to have very different views on what these terms mean and how they should be applied. Some would see them as being the same thing (or at least virtually the same). Some may perceive them as processes and techniques to be followed by the book. Others will deny that they are things or processes and that they rather represent mindsets or cultures that should be embraced.

But it need not be confusing. In a nutshell all three these concepts are mindsets (or principles that inspire culture) that when practiced correctly help organizations develop new skills, abilities and competencies to respond to the modern world. All three attempt to make every organizational action a learning opportunity driving better decisions and new ways of working.

Each mindset brings its own value to a different part of the product life cycle. As such they are not the same thing but complement each other so well that they might as well be.

I can’t remember where I picked it up but my favorite way of summarizing the difference is with the following three sentences:

  • Design thinking is about exploring problems in a better way
  • Lean is about building the right thing
  • Agile is about building the thing right

If you take anything out of this article these three sentences would be it. But let’s scratch that surface just a little bit more.

Design thinking at a distance (Explore problems better)

Design thinking leverages techniques and practices that designers have used to overcome the weaknesses in traditional brainstorming to better explore complex problems that exists in uncertain environments. It draws heavily on empathetic thinking and the constant re-framing of problems (and potential solutions) from the perspective of the humans in the process. It is not limited to design and these techniques can be applied to almost any domain that would benefit from a less rigid approach or departure point.

Lean thinking at a distance (Build the right thing)

Famously tying its origins back to the revolutionary Toyota Production System and its father Taiichi Ohno, lean is the management philosophy that embraces scientific thinking when considering strategic decisions about how, when, where and how work gets done in an organizational value stream. It recognizes hard realities about constraints and uses it to focus improvement efforts where it matters most. It promotes the use of deliberate practice to create habits that result in a highly responsive and outcomes focused organization obsessed with value creation.

Agile thinking at a distance (Build the thing right)

Agile is not a noun, it is an adjective. And at the heart of having agility in your ways of working is adapting to changing needs and deferring decision making to the last responsible possible moment in time when you have the most possible information to make the right decision. It focuses on constant value creation typically through short iterative cycles of focused work that can easily adapt to almost any domain. Quality is not a goal but as a continuously integrated facet of your daily work.

So which one of the three is the most important?

Well this is awkward. The strengths of each of these concepts present themselves under different circumstances. As such, you cannot really compare and say one is more important than another. As such you should not be trying to figure out how to do one above another. Rather see them as a powerful trio that when done together can take your organization to new heights. In geek parlance it is ! an || but an &&.

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