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What is Lean Software Development? Principles, Benefits & Risks

Last updated on
October 4, 2023


1. What is lean software development? 

Lean software development is a methodology focused on introducing constant improvements into the software development process. The goal: to increase the efficiency of the process by reducing waste.

2. Lean software development process

The steps of the lean software development process are the following:

  1. Specify the value
  2. Map value stream
  3. Design flow
  4. Establish pull
  5. Constant improvements.


What is Lean Software Development? Principles, Benefits & Risks

Struggling to deliver value on time?

Are you tired of sluggish and inefficient software development processes that leave you frustrated and behind schedule? In today's rapidly evolving business and technology landscape, it's more important than ever to stay ahead of the curve. And that's where Lean methodology comes in. 

What is lean software development?

Lean methodology focuses on continuously improving the software development process by eliminating non-essential steps and reducing waste. This approach helps teams deliver faster, utilize resources more efficiently, produce higher-quality output, and ultimately provide more value to clients and app users.

The history of Lean began in the manufacturing industry. Toyota developed it in the 1950s to optimize production processes by eliminating any steps that didn't contribute to the quality of the final product. Today, Lean is widely used and has been most widely adopted in software development. 

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Lean for MVP: Lean can be used during any production process, but it seems to be a must during MVP development, since it helps to define customer value.</p></span>

Lean principles

If a team wants to implement Lean, they need to focus on its 7 principles:

  1. Eliminate waste.
  2. Improve quality.
  3. Amplify learning.
  4. Delay commitment.
  5. Deliver fast.
  6. Respect people.
  7. Optimize the whole.

More information about each principle - in the next section.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Agile vs Lean: Agile and Lean can be blended together. Lean principles are similar to Agile's focus on responsibility and the pace of product delivery. Sprints work similarly to the optimizations used in Lean. However, Agile places more emphasis on collaboration and delivering working software frequently, while Lean focuses on flow, waste reduction, and respect for people.</p></span>

<h2 id="principles">Seven Lean software development principles</h2>

Let’s explore the details of each Lean software development principle:

1: Eliminate waste

In lean software development, eliminating waste means getting rid of elements and tasks that do not add value. Identifying bottlenecks and areas that generate waste is an important part of this principle. Waste, also known as muda in Japanese, can be described as features, tasks, or pieces of code that are not needed, excess bureaucracy, inefficient communication, data duplication, or quality issues.

How to implement?

One way to spot and eliminate waste in processes is to use the right metrics, e.g. software delivery performance metrics like MTTR or LTFC, or process metrics like throughput. By tracking the right metrics continuously, you can find bottlenecks in various stages of product creation, like development, testing, or incident monitoring.

2: Improve quality

Lean aims to create value, reduce waste, and enhance quality. Code needs to be effectively tested and verified to increase the quality of the final product. This principle applies not only to the coding process but also to communication, which can be improved by providing regular feedback.

How to implement?

To implement this approach, methodologies such as pair programming and test-driven development can be beneficial. Setting up automated tests and health checks also helps to increase the product quality.

3: Amplify learning

Implementing Lean methodology requires building a specific culture within the development team or the entire organization. This involves freely sharing knowledge and giving everyone the opportunity to contribute their opinions and suggestions to the project. One of the goals is to ensure that knowledge is not held by only one person.

How to implement?

To foster a learning culture, organize frequent knowledge-sharing sessions. Implement code reviewing and start organizing cross-team meetings. You can also go a step further, and start implementing the whole BizDevOps approach which requires tearing boundaries between teams.

4: Delay commitment

The next principle of Lean software development is learning as much as possible before committing to serious, irreversible decisions. This is because the market environment is constantly and rapidly changing. Gathering data increases the likelihood of staying current, ensures a better fit with the market, and allows for more accurate identification of risks and threats.

How to implement?

Along with chosen stakeholders from your organization, prepare a decision-making model that will include necessary steps and balance the need to gather data before making decisions with the need for fast product delivery and learning.

5: Deliver fast

On the other hand, the next principle of Lean software development is delivering products quickly in order to receive customer feedback and start the product optimization process. It also applies to releasing as often as possible. This approach speeds up the learning process from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes, while eliminating the possibility of developing unnecessary features.

How to implement?

You can manage your workflow effectively by limiting work in progress (WIP) and implementing Agile processes to enable fast delivery. One key tactic for streamlining the development process is also to automate continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD). Tracking the right software delivery performance metrics (and making improvements based on results and their analysis) also helps.

6: Respect people

Lean software development is all about collaboration and creating a supportive and productive atmosphere. For a successful approach, it is important to address problems and conflicts with communication, feedback, and respect for team members. 

How to implement?

Tear the boundaries between business and development teams. Everyone plays to the same goal. Build a company culture of trust and empathy - allow team members to express their views and take part in the decision-making processes.

7: Optimize the whole

To apply Lean software development, you must analyze and optimize processes from various perspectives. Optimizing only some parts of the process and not the whole is not how Lean works. Lean approach requires streamlining the entire workflow to improve overall team performance and achieve the highest efficiency across all technology and business areas.

How to implement?

Measure the delivery process to identify and eliminate bottlenecks (start tracking software delivery performance metrics and process metrics). Set up automated tests to avoid costly manual rework. Optimize time-to-market by reviewing the progress towards achieving product goals regularly.

How to start implementing Lean methodology?

Although Lean implementation is a complex process and a significant change for the organization, you can start with using a few general tips on how to implement it.

Step 1: Define goals

The first step is to define the goals of Lean implementation and find answers to the questions: 

  • Why do we want to implement Lean? 
  • What do we want to achieve? 
  • Which areas do we want to improve? 

This will help you to get a clear overview of your objectives and to gain the right focus during the lean implementation process.

Step 2: Educate the team

The next step is educating your team on the Lean goals, specifics, and principles. This is typically the most difficult and long-lasting process, especially within mature, established organizations that aren’t used to working in Lean culture. To make this process run smoothly, you can seek the help of an experienced transformation or Lean implementation partner.

Step 3: Start implementing Lean software development process

  1. Specify the value. Define what’s the value for your customer. What are the customer’s expectations from the final product and what needs to be done and achieved to meet them?
  2. Map value stream. After defining the value, it’s time to map it. Mapping is the process of defining the current and future state of the project. You need to specify necessary tasks related to problem-solving, information management, and transformation. This stage involves also identifying waste.
  3. Design flow. To improve efficiency, it's helpful to create a value stream flow that outlines the remaining steps of the process. This can involve getting rid of unnecessary steps and addressing any bottlenecks. It's also important to educate employees about the Lean approach so that everyone is on the same page and can work together effectively.
  4. Establish pull. This step involves prioritizing tasks and assigning them to developers. In the process, the tasks are queued in the right order, and team members autonomously proceed to the most urgent ones from the top of the list. Doing that, you can reduce waiting time and ensure the highest possible efficiency.
  5. Prepare for constant improvements. Last but not least, Lean implementation is about constantly questioning the status quo, seeking opportunities, and understanding that nothing in the process is set and defined once and forever.

Lean software development might not be worth your time

As you can see, Lean implementation is a complex process and it takes time. Is it worth it? Take a look at the challenges connected to implementing Lean to become aware of potential bottlenecks in advance.

Challenges of Lean Software Development

Lean development, despite the obvious benefits, comes with a few risks and drawbacks. To name but a few of them:

  • Education

To successfully implement Lean, the team needs to be thoroughly educated and have a good understanding of its goals and principles. It involves building a modern, coherent working culture, and this won’t happen overnight. The team must be trained in communication, teamwork, and work optimization, preferably as part of a structured and facilitated process. This requires time, a change of mindset, and engaging resources.

  • Documentation and metrics

The Lean approach in software development must be based on detailed documentation of the developed software. Also, the team must be provided with tools for accurate waste identification in order to eliminate it correctly, which requires the right metrics that will measure muda.

  • Lack of focus

Lean methodology in software development is effective only within the “optimize the whole” principle. Solving only specific bottlenecks and optimizing selected processes isn’t an effective Lean implementation. So, it might be challenging for some teams to always see the big picture and take coherent actions.

When is it worth the effort?

It’s worth devoting time, money and effort on the Lean implementation if you struggle with delivering value in a timely manner. It’s worth it, when you want to develop products faster, and in the meantime increase their quality. It’s also worth it when you want to save money and maximize the efficiency of your development team.

Time for some more benefits.

Benefits of Lean software development

By implementing Lean, you will:

  • Improve processes

Lean can help you to improve your processes and maximize their efficiency. Thanks to continuous improvement, they will be completed much faster and at a lower cost.

  • Deliver faster

With Lean, you can develop products faster and shorten time-to-market. By eliminating waste, you will increase feasibility and efficiency, and minimize the risk of developing unnecessary features.

  • Collaborate better

With amplified learning, your team will exchange knowledge faster and internal communication will be much more efficient. This will empower your team members, prevent bottlenecks, increase engagement and participation, and accelerate the decision-making processes.

  • Be more flexible

Lean software development incorporates constant changes and process improvement, which enforces flexibility. A Lean-powered team can easily adjust to changes and still aim at achieving the highest levels of efficiency. 

  • Produce better quality

Regular feedback and improvements result in better product quality. Prioritizing essential tasks and eliminating waste helps teams to focus on core activities that deliver value to the client. This drives revenue, customer satisfaction, and loyalty.

Time to decide

Whether you're building a new software product from scratch or iterating on an existing one, Lean methodology can help you identify and eliminate inefficiencies, prioritize features based on user needs, and deliver value faster. By focusing on the essentials and cutting out the unnecessary, you can create software that truly meets your customers' needs and exceeds their expectations.

If you’re searching for a methodology to improve your software development process and focus on delivering value to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible, Lean methodology can be the right choice.

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Olga Gierszal
Software Engineering Editor

Software development enthusiast with 6 years of professional experience in the tech industry.

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