Lean Principles

Both Lean (sometimes called Lean Agile) and Lean Six Sigma aim to improve the value of products delivered to customers and consumers. Improved customer satisfaction, combined with a focus on customer value, will help organisations achieve their own goals.
Lean Principles


Lean agile is a product development method that helps identify, then refine, wasteful processes. Lean is a mindset, but it is also a combination of lean management principles, project management processes, and technical practices.

Lean is also a training and certification scheme recognised by agile practitioners and organisation all around the world. If you’d like to know more, make sure to see our selection of Lean Six Sigma training.

The history of Lean

To understand how Lean works, you first need to know where it originated. The Lean we know today began its life as ‘Lean Manufacturing.’ Lean manufacturing was first designed for use in the automotive industry. It followed 2 primary concepts: That all processes should be automated as much as possible and that each process only creates what is needed for the next step in a continuous flow.

Lean Agile and Lean Manufacturing still share many of the same ideas, i.e. eliminating wasteful processes to improve value and productivity. But, while Lean Manufacturing looks at how to streamline inventories, supply-chains, and human resources, Lean agile looks at software, digital tools, and features.

As mentioned, Lean has several ‘layers’ the comprise the method. We will first look at the principles that underpin the method and inform those activities and methods that follow.

The 5 Lean Principles

The 5 Lean principles we use today have deviated only slightly from their first incarnation used in Lean Manufacturing. Like many agile methods, the rules that guide Lean are rational, logical, and based on the needs of the people who use them. They are not complex, and this simplicity has given them such longevity so that organisations can still apply them to their work today.

When comparing Lean principles with those from the Agile Manifesto, it’s clear that both emphasise learning and a people-first approach while enabling sustainable projects. The Agile focus on continuous improvement also works well within Lean.

The 5 principles of Lean are:

Define Value

To generate value, we must first define what ‘value’ is. The finer details may differ from project to project, but value is essentially anything a customer is willing to pay for. To maximize the value of a single product, we must take the time to discover our client’s needs.

Often, customers will not be able to articulate what they want, or in some cases, they might not know what they want. This is especially common when it comes to software and newer technology. By gathering data through interviews, surveys, and other methods, organisations can help customers find the optimal solution to a problem they are trying to solve.

Only after we have uncovered what value means to our customers can we proceed.

Map the Value Stream

The second Lean principle is to map the ‘value stream’. This means using the customers’ idea of ‘value’ as an end-goal, then mapping all the processes contributing toward this goal. Anything that does not add value is waste and must be eliminated.

Waste comes in two forms: Unnecessary and nonvaluable, and nonvaluable but necessary. The former should be limited in its entirety, while the latter should be reduced as much as possible not to draw resources from value-adding activities.

Accurate mapping of the value stream helps reduce cost, improve the speed of development, and ultimately provide a cost-effective and timely solution to a problem.

This is doubly important in industries that rely heavily on emergent technologies and software. Slow development due to wasteful processes might render a final product obsolete before being delivered to customers.

Map the flow

Once the value stream has been mapped, we must plan out each step in the development process and ensure that staff can complete each without delays or interruptions.

To achieve this, we can break down large, complex steps into its’ component activities. Production steps can be reconfigured and reordered to prevent bottlenecks. Workloads can be monitored across departments. If necessary, cross-functional teams can be created to share work and duties.

Staff can be trained in multiple skills and disciplines to help share work among the entire development team.

Establish Pull

Unused inventory is one of the biggest wastes in any production system. A pull-based system limits work in process (WIP), ensuring that products are created only when needed and in the exact quantities required. Pull-based systems are made by following the value stream and working backward through the development cycle.

In a pull system, the tasks that must be completed are stored in a queue. Developers who are not currently occupied will go to the queue and take the item with the highest priority that they are able to complete.

Pursue Perfection

Following the first four principles helps eliminate almost all waste in development. But this 5th step is considered the most important of all.

A large part of Lean is about making the Lean mindset and continuous process improvement a part of organisational culture. For Lean to work as intended, staff must always strive to improve the way they work. Organisations must create an environment of learning, communication, and collaboration that facilitates continuous improvement and the pursuit of perfection.

Applying the Lean principles

The principles detailed above help create a framework that guides the project management practices and development practices used to create a product or service.

Understanding these principles is the first step to the successful implementation of Lean in your organisation. These principles cannot be changed or overlooked. Failure to follow them will lead to a failed adoption of Lean!

Like many other prescriptive frameworks, adequate training is essential if you wish to implement Lean in your organisation. If you’d like to learn more bout how Lean Six Sigma (a closely related variation of Lean) can help you improve productivity and profits, see our Lean Six Sigma online courses.

As always, the finer details may change from industry to industry. For example, the tools you might use to determine customer value will differ depending on the context, the product, and target demographics. Likewise, those necessary but nonvaluable processes that must be completed will vary in size and complexity depending on the project and what must be delivered.

The correct approach is to adapt the tools to the process available after due consideration of the situation at hand. Investing in Lean training or training key members of staff in change management can help reduce the risk of failure.

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