The Difference Between Lean and Agile

As Agile at scale continues to gain momentum, the need for a better understanding of Lean is becoming more important.  The reason for this is due to what each body of knowledge is primarily focused on.

As part of any of our education efforts dealing with Agile at scale (or even across a couple of teams), Silicon Prairie Solutions includes the following as a means to establish a common understanding of the what and why for Lean and Agile.

It’s a pretty simple concept when considered visually against the different planning horizons and organization has.


PlanningOnionSAFe 4.0

Planning Horizons

These planning horizons exist regardless of the process the company is following (Agile, Lean, SAFe, Hope and Prey, etc.)  The typical planning horizons are:

  • Vision (1-2 years)
    • Where the company wants to be in the future. Typically defined by Minimum Business Increments (MBI’s) or Portfolio Epics in SAFe.
  • Roadmap (6 – 18 months)
    • This could would relate to the Program Level Roadmap in SAFe ( or a similar initiative plan.  The contents of the road map are derived from the Vision and other work items the teams must do (Dev Ops, maintenance, etc.)
  • Release / PI in SAFe (~3 months)
    • Getting working software into production and the end users’ hands. Ideally this is done on a frequent basis (the is frequency defined by maximizing value to the customer) but certainly should be done in as short increments as possible to increase feedback.
  • Iteration (2 weeks)
    • A typical team Sprint.
  • Daily
    • Daily Stand up.


After establishing these planning horizons we can now do two things:

  • Define alignment
  • Differentiate between Lean and Agile


Define Alignment

Alignment in this model simply means that the planning for a subsequent level (e.g. Roadmap to PI) supports the same strategy, prioritization and expectations.  You can see from the illustration that alignment should exist from the Vision to Daily.    This also means that alignment encompasses all the activity at the Portfolio\Program\Team levels.   Thus if the teams are not aware of the Roadmap (longer term planning and strategy) they are at a disadvantage because they will try to fill in the gaps of their understanding from a planning horizon based in week not months.  This is one of the reasons why the PI Planning ( event is SAFe is so beneficial.


Lean | Agile

Finally, we can establish a common understanding of Lean and Agile to help grow the organizational intelligence.   If one considers Lean and Agile to be related, and there are some overlapping principles and practices (Kaizen in Lean and Retrospectives in Agile, small batch size in Lean and right sized user story in Agile, etc.) we can associate Lean with the broader time horizons and Agile with the more immediate planning and execution.

In this case Lean is all about systems thinking, flow, maximizing value delivery and the overall process that the organization follows.  This level of planning typically falls to leadership in a traditional organizational structure.  That’s why SAFe and other frameworks can be so effective, it helps define the roles and responsibilities for traditional leadership.

At the other end of the planning spectrum lives the team and Agile principles and practices.  Here adaptability, collaboration, stable teams and executing on the work in a consistent manner are critical.

This model also shows the importance of the Program level in SAFe ( and if applicable the Value Stream Level.  One of the main functions at these levels is to tie the work between larger planning horizons to actual execution and delivery (Lean planning and Lean leadership to Agile teams).  Again, another benefit of using a framework like SAFe to organize around the work at scale.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *