Agile vs. Lean vs. Design Thinking: Uncovering the Unknown

13minutes read
agile vs design thinking vs lean

93% of Agile organizations reported better customer satisfaction, and 88% of people are unfamiliar with lean principles at all. In this era of rapid technological advancement and ever-evolving consumer demands, understanding the distinctions and synergies among methodologies such as design thinking, lean, and Agile is crucial for organizations striving to thrive in competitive environments. Each methodology offers unique perspectives, tools, and frameworks to streamline processes, enhance collaboration, and foster innovation. 

Do you know the difference between these three approaches? If not, join us to explore each one’s fundamental principles, key characteristics, and practical applications. Let’s uncover the transformative power they hold in shaping the future of business and innovation!

Agile vs. Design Thinking vs. Lean Overview

Each methodology brings its unique approach and set of principles to the table, catering to diverse needs and objectives across industries. The lean vs. Agile vs. design thinking debate may end as we dive into the exploration of each one.

Agile overview

The Agile principles emerged from dissatisfaction with traditional software development methods, such as the Waterfall model, which relied on extensive upfront planning and documentation. The Agile Manifesto, created in 2001 by a group of software developers, outlined the values and principles of Agile development. The manifesto emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. Agile fundamental principles include:

  • Customer satisfaction - delivering valuable software to customers early and continuously seeking feedback to incorporate changes throughout development.
  • Iterative development - Agile projects are broken down into smaller iterations or sprints where each of them produces a potentially transportable product growth. 
  • Collaboration - close cooperation among cross-functional teams, including developers, testers, and business stakeholders, to ensure shared understanding and alignment on project goals.
  • Adaptability and flexibility - teams embrace change and adapt their plans and priorities based on customer feedback and evolving requirements.
  • Continuous improvement - Agile encourages teams to reflect on their processes and practices regularly and make adjustments to improve efficiency and quality.
agile design principles
principles of agile design

Several frameworks have been developed to implement Agile principles effectively. Some of the most popular ones are:

  • Scrum is an iterative and gradual Agile framework emphasizing teamwork, accountability, and iterative progress. It defines specific roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Development Team) and ceremonies (Sprint Planning, Daily Standups, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective) to facilitate collaboration and transparency.
  • Kanban is a visual management method that helps teams visualize their work, limit work in progress (WIP), and optimize their workflow. It uses a Kanban board to visualize tasks and their statuses, making it easier to identify bottlenecks and optimize the workflow.
  • Extreme Programming (XP) is an Agile framework that focuses on engineering practices such as test-driven development (TDD), pair programming, continuous integration, and collective code ownership to ensure high-quality software and rapid feedback.

Agile methodology and its frameworks have become widely adopted across industries beyond software development, including design, project management, marketing, and product development, due to their emphasis on flexibility, collaboration, and customer focus.

Interestingly, as per this study, 62% of top management think Agile has no implications for them, and 32% stated that their Agile transformation has no support from top managers.

Learn more about this topic: Mastering the Agile Design Process for Dynamic Project Management.

Design thinking overview

Design thinking originated in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the design and engineering fields. It gained popularity through the work of design firms like IDEO and Stanford University's (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), among others. Design thinking was initially applied to product design but has since been adopted in various industries and domains, including business, education, healthcare, and social innovation.

There’s no single definition for design thinking. It's a concept, a plan, a technique, and an outlook on the world. Its iterative and non-linear approach highlights empathy for users, creative problem-solving, and rapid prototyping. It encourages multidisciplinary collaboration and the exploration of diverse perspectives to generate innovative solutions. 

design thinking steps
design thinking process

Design thinking is often used to tackle complex and ambiguous problems where traditional problem-solving approaches may fall short. There are five principal steps in the design thinking process:

  • Emphasize. The first step involves understanding the needs, motivations, and behaviors of the users or customers for whom the solution is designed. This phase often involves conducting interviews, observations, and empathy-building exercises to gain deep insights into user experiences.
  • Define. The insights gathered during the empathy phase are synthesized and distilled into actionable problem statements or design challenges. The goal is to define the problem space and clearly articulate the needs and aspirations of the users.
  • Ideate. The ideation phase involves generating various creative solutions to address the defined problem. Participants are encouraged to think divergently, suspend judgment, and explore unconventional ideas through brainstorming sessions, sketching, and other ideation techniques.
  • Prototype. Prototyping involves creating tangible representations of potential solutions to problems identified in earlier stages. Prototypes can take various forms, such as sketches, wireframes, mockups, or physical models. The goal is to quickly and iteratively test and refine ideas to gather feedback and validate assumptions.
  • Test. The final step is to test the prototypes with end users to gather feedback, validate assumptions, and identify opportunities for improvement. Testing involves observing how users interact with the prototypes, soliciting feedback, and iterating on the UI/UX design based on the insights gained.

Lean overview

Lean initially emerged as a reaction to manufacturing's scientific management techniques. Organizations used processes, rules, and procedures to seek efficiency, and management was primarily concerned with control. However, control is an illusion in contemporary business. Things could be more dynamic, unforeseen, and complex to manage. 

lean design principles
principles of lean approach

Lean provides a different way of thinking about managing any work system. Fundamentally, it's about empowering those closest to the work to decide how to achieve desired outcomes, exploring uncertainty, and making decisions through experimentation and learning. Adaptiveness is a key to the lean methodology. 

Five main lean principles include:

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP). By launching an MVP quickly, organizations can learn from real-world usage and iterate based on customer feedback.
  • Build-Measure-Learn loop. How does it work? Build a version of the product, measure its performance using key metrics, and learn from the data and user feedback. This process allows you to make data-driven decisions and adapt strategies based on validated learning.
  • Validated learning. It is testing hypotheses and validating assumptions through real-world experiments and data analysis. The goal is to gather evidence to support or deny essential assumptions about the business model, target market, and customer needs.
  • Pivot or persist. Lean acknowledges that organizations operate in a highly uncertain environment and may need to pivot - make significant changes to their strategy, product, or business model - in response to new information or changing market conditions.
  • Continuous deployment. This approach allows you to frequently release new features and updates to the product in small increments. This way, you can quickly iterate on the product, respond to user feedback, and stay ahead of competitors.

These lean principles aim to help teams build more successful and sustainable products by focusing on creating value for customers and rapidly adapting to changing market dynamics.

Pros & Cons: Understanding Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile

By understanding the nuances of these methodologies, you can make informed decisions and leverage the most suitable approaches to achieve their strategic objectives and drive sustainable growth in today's dynamic business environment. Let’s explore the pros and cons of lean, Agile, and design thinking.

Choosing the design approach may be difficult. Gapsy’s UX audit services can facilitate this task.

Agile benefits & drawbacks

Understanding the advantages and drawbacks of Agile is essential for organizations seeking to harness its potential effectively while navigating its challenges.

Agile advantages

  • Higher quality. Agile methodologies emphasize the importance of continuous integration, automated testing, and code reviews to ensure high-quality software. 
  • Speed and flexibility. The iterative approach allows teams to deliver valuable functionality incrementally, enabling faster time-to-market and providing opportunities for early validation and course correction.
  • Progress visibility. Agile frameworks such as Scrum and Kanban provide transparent and real-time visibility into the progress of each project. This transparency fosters accountability, facilitates communication, and enables informed decision-making at all levels of the organization.
  • Stakeholder engagement. Stakeholders are actively involved in defining requirements, prioritizing features, and providing feedback on practical results. This way, Agile teams can ensure alignment with business objectives and manage expectations effectively.
  • Cost control. Agile promotes efficient resource utilization, minimizing rework and maximizing return on investment (ROI). Based on this, Agile teams can optimize resource allocation and mitigate the risk of over-investing in low-priority or unnecessary features.
agile design pros and cons
agile approach advantages & drawbacks

Agile disadvantages

  • Uncertainty. It can be problematic to predict efforts such as cost, time, and resources at the beginning of the project.
  • Progress challenges. Measuring progress becomes challenging due to Agile methodologies' gradual delivery approach.
  • Implementation resistance. Agile may appear difficult to implement as people tend to resist changes inherently.
  • Focus on maintaining. Teams can get sidetracked if they don’t see any progress.

Lean benefits & drawbacks

Lean offers a framework for enhancing efficiency and driving organizational performance. However, while lean presents numerous benefits, it also poses challenges and limitations that organizations must navigate.

Lean advantages

  • Eliminates waste. Lean principles help teams streamline workflows, minimize unnecessary steps, and optimize resource utilization. By reducing waste, organizations can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and focus on delivering value to customers.
  • Worker satisfaction. Lean teams foster a sense of ownership, autonomy, and pride among employees by involving workers in process improvement processes and encouraging a culture of continuous advancement.
  • Just in Time (JIT). This lean methodology principle emphasizes delivering services exactly when needed. Companies can reduce lead times and respond more quickly to changing customer preferences by synchronizing production and delivery with customer demand.
  • Competitive advantage. Lean enables organizations to achieve a competitive advantage by continuously improving processes, enhancing customer value, and adapting to changing market conditions.

Lean disadvantages

  • New inefficiencies. Strict adherence to standardized procedures or a narrow focus on specific metrics may lead to decreased flexibility or reduced creativity.
  • Low error margin. The focus on efficiency can increase the pressure on teams to perform flawlessly and meet strict performance targets.
  • Employees' frustration. There's a risk that workers may become frustrated or disengaged if they feel overwhelmed by the relentless focus on productivity and efficiency.

Design thinking benefits & drawbacks

With its focus on empathy, iteration, and collaboration, design thinking offers a holistic approach to tackling complex challenges and uncovering innovative opportunities. Let’s learn its advantages and disadvantages.

Design thinking advantages

  • Facilitates solution adaption. Design thinking encourages user-centric solutions development and addresses real needs and pain points. Empathizing with end users, understanding their perspectives, and involving them in the design process helps ensure that solutions resonate with users and are more likely to be adopted quickly.
  • End-user engagement. The high level of engagement promotes a sense of ownership and investment among end users, who feel valued and involved in shaping solutions that directly impact their lives or experiences.
  • Iterative approach. Rather than relying on a linear, step-by-step process, design thinking embraces iteration and refinement based on feedback and testing. This iterative approach allows teams to uncover insights, explore possibilities, and refine solutions.
design thinking pros and cons
design thinking advantages & drawbacks

Design thinking disadvantages

  • Duration. Design thinking projects typically span a medium to long duration, often lasting around 7 to 8 months. A streamlined version can be implemented for specific purposes, such as idea generation.
  • User involvement. Design thinking requires the active participation of users, empowering them to contribute meaningfully (provided they have the necessary time and resources).
  • Integration challenges. Using the methodology to design digital solutions for companies may face challenges because of existing system integrations.

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What is the Difference Between 3 Methodologies?

Lean, Agile, design thinking - what makes them different? Numerous organizations adopt one or more of these methodologies, aiming to innovate and enhance their products and services for customers. However, managers may seek recommendations on when to apply each methodology.

lean agile and design thinking
design thinking vs. lean vs. agile

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that promotes empathy, creativity, and iteration. Originating from design disciplines, design thinking emphasizes understanding user needs, exploring diverse perspectives, and generating innovative solutions. It uses techniques such as empathy mapping, journey mapping, and rapid prototyping to understand user requirements and iteratively refine solutions deeply. 

Design thinking is widely used in product design, service design, and business strategy to drive customer-centric innovation and foster a culture of creativity and collaboration.

Agile methodology, on the other hand, emerged from software development practices. It focuses on flexibility, collaboration, and iterative delivery. Agile promotes adaptive planning, continuous improvement, and close collaboration among cross-functional teams. It highlights delivering working software incrementally and responding to change effectively. Agile frameworks provide structures, ceremonies, and practices to manage projects and deliver value to customers iteratively. 

Agile is commonly used in software development but is also applied in various domains, including agile UX design, project management, marketing, and product development, to foster responsiveness, transparency, and customer satisfaction.

Lean focuses on process improvement, waste reduction, and continuous flow to optimize workflows and deliver more value with fewer resources. It employs tools and techniques, such as value stream mapping, Kaizen events, and 5S methodology, to identify and eliminate waste and streamline processes. 

Lean is widely applied to achieve operational excellence, reduce lead times, and enhance overall business performance.

Lean, Agile, Design Thinking: What They Have in Common?

First and foremost, all three methodologies prioritize customer value and satisfaction. Whether it's understanding user needs in design thinking, delivering working software in Agile, or maximizing value stream efficiency in lean, these methodologies focus on meeting customer requirements and addressing their pain points effectively. You can create products, services, and processes that resonate with users and drive long-term success by focusing on customer needs and preferences. 

Design thinking, lean, and Agile embrace an iterative and collaborative approach to problem-solving. Rather than relying on rigid, linear processes, these methodologies encourage experimentation, feedback, and adaptation throughout the development cycle. 

Design thinking emphasizes rapid prototyping and user testing to iterate on ideas and refine solutions based on real-world feedback. Agile promotes adaptive planning, continuous improvement, and close collaboration among cross-functional teams to deliver value incrementally and respond to change effectively. Lean advocates for ongoing flow and continuous improvement to optimize processes and enhance overall organizational performance. By embracing iteration and collaboration, organizations can adapt to evolving market dynamics, mitigate risks, and drive innovation more effectively.

All three methodologies share a common emphasis on continuous learning and improvement. Rather than viewing projects or initiatives as one-time endeavors, these methodologies encourage organizations to embrace a continuous learning mindset, experimentation, and adaptation.

Combining all three methods

Combining design thinking, lean, and Agile methodologies can result in a powerful approach to problem-solving, product development, and organizational improvement. This integration leverages the strengths of each approach, embracing innovation, agility, and efficiency throughout the entire product lifecycle.

combining lean agile and design thinking
combining lean, agile, & design thinking

This integrated approach enables teams to innovate more effectively, deliver high-quality products and services faster, and adapt to changing market conditions with greater agility and resilience. As organizations embrace design thinking, Agile, and lean principles and practices, they can unlock new opportunities for growth, innovation, and success in an increasingly complex and competitive landscape.

Final Tips & Tricks: Which One Should You Use?

The choice of which approach to use - design thinking, lean, Agile, or a combination thereof - depends on various factors, including the nature of the project, organizational culture, team composition, and the specific goals and objectives you want to achieve:

  • For those seeking to enhance quality and streamline delivery, lean’s Six Sigma stands out as the optimal approach. It employs robust statistical tools and a structured methodology to eliminate defects effectively.
  • If you aim to discover innovative solutions for a complex problem or reshape the customer experience, design thinking offers the ideal starting point.
  • After developing a concept to impress your customers, employ lean methodology to test and refine both the product and business model iteratively.
  • To develop products that align with your development team's capacity and allow for continuous improvement, opt for Agile methodology - it surpasses the 'waterfall' method we discussed earlier in effectiveness for most organizations.

Ultimately, the choice of approach depends on the specific context, goals, and constraints of the project or initiative. Flexibility and the willingness to adapt to changing circumstances are essential in selecting and implementing the most suitable approach for any situation.

Summing Up

The comparison between design thinking, lean, and Agile reveals the diverse methodologies available to tackle complex problems and foster innovation in today's dynamic business landscape. While each approach possesses distinct principles and practices, they share a goal of delivering value to customers efficiently and effectively. Chances are, there's someone in your organization who does each of these things. 

Don't feel intimidated by the fancy terminology. It's simple enough for you to grasp the fundamental purpose of each and the benefits they offer your organization. Moreover, if you require further clarification, don't hesitate to consult an expert, as they're usually eager to share their knowledge!

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