Agile vs. Lean Project Management

ART04x - edited feature imageThe perfect project management style has yet to be discovered. For the curious project owner, exploring all the different project management methodologies is an enriching endeavor.

It’s a good idea for everyone, even those dead set on one particular management philosophy, to look into other popular project management frameworks.

How do you find out which project management methodology is right for you? It depends on your team size, your company’s culture, and your project goals.

Let’s explore two related project management frameworks that are effective for businesses large and small: agile and lean. Hopefully, after you read through this guide, you’ll arrive at a project management style that works for your organization.

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Agile Project Management

Software development is a complicated business. At least, it was until the late 1990’s, when a cabal of eccentric programmers thought up a new style of software engineering.

Software professionals, fed up with overlong projects, confused clients, and broken software products published The Manifesto for Agile Development with a radical idea in mind— make software development projects dynamic, fluid, and fast.

What makes agile so effective? Agile embraces change. Agile development teams respond to change rather than react to it. They deliver working software as often as possible, revising versions as the project progresses.

Before agile, software companies used a methodology called waterfall. Every step in development cascaded to the next. Previous processes were never revisited. Software engineers would draw up long documents outlining the project, software specifications, and so on. These hundred-page documents acted as a set of inalienable guidelines.

When hiccups in development occurred waterfall projects fell apart. This is where agile shines. Agile has an emphasis on keeping a consistent pace, pushing boundaries by welcoming change. It’s such a flexible management style that agile has since expanded outside of tech, seeing adoption from companies in every industry.

Lean Project Management

Lean project management focuses on reducing waste. So while agile is focused on responding and adapting to change, lean project management emphasizes efficiency through diligence.

Lean project management is rooted in lean manufacturing. In manufacturing, costs can easily balloon. Parts can be ordered at an inopportune time, for example, which can cause bottlenecks. Any delay in production could compound costs exponentially, since physical manufacturing is both costly and time sensitive.

Lean project management requires lean project managers to (1) firmly identify the value their product will produce for the customer, (2) draft a “value stream” that details every step and every process from planning to deployment (in which every step effortlessly flows into the next), and finally (3) continuously improve the value stream by pointing out imperfections in processes as the project progresses.

Data drives lean project management. Companies need to be in constant communication about every key metric in order to foster a lean environment. Without consistent tracking, lean project management falters.

Lean project management is about seeking perfection. Lean project managers draw up detailed maps of the entire project, assiduously researching every aspect of design and development, and carefully cross-referencing requirements and timelines.

Lean has been around quite a bit longer than agile, having started in the 1950’s. It’s since been adapted for startups and tech companies as well. In general, these companies adopt a three-step process: learn, measure, and build. Data is collected through experience, the experience is then converted into data, and data is then applied to make the next process more efficient.


Understanding the myriad ways companies discover, test, and adopt more efficient processes is worth the time and effort. Finding the right fit for your project can mean higher productivity, lower costs, and higher employee satisfaction.

Both the agile and lean project management styles have proven to be effective management strategies. They both promote shorter development times, more collaborative working environments, and higher quality end products.

While agile promotes success by embracing change and requiring continuous delivery of a working product, lean by mapping value and addressing inefficiencies. Both encourage constant communication across hierarchies and departments.

Agile is best suited for small teams that are looking to reign in complexity and invite innovation. Lean project management is best suited for larger organizations that seek to create high-quality products, producing value through the pursuit of perfection.

Lean and agile are effective project management methodologies. No matter which one you decide to adopt for your company, you are bound to see returns. Traditional project management techniques simply do not stack up to the hyper-productive lean and agile frameworks.

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Josh Althuser

Josh Althuser

Josh Althauser is an entrepreneur with a background in design and M&A. He's also a developer, open source advocate, and designer. You may connect with him on Twitter at @joshalthuser.

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