Principles of Software Flow

The Merging of Lean and Agile

It has been nearly 25 years since Fred Brooks assured us that there would be no silver bullets to help us slay the werewolf of software developement as it transformed apparently mild mannered projects into an insatiable monsters baying for our blood.

Brooks seminal essay was written in 1986, an nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then. Has nothing changed, are things still exactly as they were? No, they are not.

The expectation for so long was that building software would become more and more like manufacturing. The reality is that manufacturing has actually become more and more like software development. For example, Brooks argued that software development was always going to be more complex than manufacturing because in software development we never have to repeat ourselves:

Software entities are more complex for their size than perhaps any other human construct because no two parts are alike (at least above the statement level). If they are, we make the two similar parts into a subroutine–open or closed. In this respect, software systems differ profoundly from computers, buildings, or automobiles, where repeated elements abound.

Brooks, 1986

For decades the global economy has abounded with races like the Red Queen’s, with companies having to innovate faster and faster just to hold there position. Anything that can be repeated will be repeated by the competition. To stay ahead companies are forced to embrace ever increasing levels of complexity. Building products just isn’t enough, they must build capabilities that cannot be easily replicated. Just as programmers move anything repeatable into a subroutine or method, organisations now off-shore or out-source everything but their core competencies.

As manufacturing and software development become more alike, the approaches also begin to merge. Lean and Agile and merging, as Dan Woods observes:

What surprises me is that most advanced practitioners of Agile now use more vocabulary from Lean manufacturing than from Agile. In essence, as a practical matter, good ideas from Agile are being absorbed into a new approach to software development that is more Lean than anything else. Someone else can name this phenomenon, but Lean and Agile are merging.

Dan Woods at

Lean and Agile are merging. This is a two way process: not only is Agile benefiting from Lean’s inspiration, but Lean also has a lot to learn from Agile. Software Developers have been grappling with these levels of complexity for decades and the Agile methods they have developed can be usefully applied in other areas. Scrum, for example, has been applied outside the iT world. The DSDM consortium has taken this even further with DSDM Atern being a generally applicable Agile method adapted for use beyond software:

Atern is the culmination of practitioners’ experiences drawn from a wide range of public and private sector projects over more that a decade. This unparalleled expertise has resulted in a robust, but agile framework, which can be successfully applied across a variety or organisation and project contexts.

The essential nature of software demands constant innovation and practitioners have been developed strategies, methods and process that allow this innovation in a way that is controllable and predictable. The global market now demands constant innovation from every organisation, and those organisations are able to look to the experience of software developers and the Agile methods they have developed for inspiration.


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