Agile manufacturing vs Lean manufacturing has been a debate that has run for the last twenty years at least. Occasionally I get asked about these two approaches, with the main question being along the lines of:

“If you go for Agile do you still have to go for Lean?”

There appears to still be a good deal of confusion around this topic so let me try to untangle this for you. When done correctly, these two approaches form a powerful approach to improve business performance.

What is Lean?

Let me start with Lean. It is a fantastic methodology and can really help to drive up efficiencies and the overall effectiveness of a business. If you want to drive up profits and customer satisfaction then Lean is a great approach to take.

The toolkit has plenty to go at but it boils down to a pretty simple proposition.

Lean focuses on driving out waste from your organisation so that your operation uses the least amount of resources in a the shortest period of time without producing more than required.

In essence Lean is about driving out bad practices that sacrifice the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation.

What is Agile?

So then, what is Agile?

Being agile means that you can change and adapt quickly to a changing environment. I like to think about Spiderman and his agility in a dangerous world.

In the business world we are talking about being able to quickly adapt to changing customer demands and flexing our product / service offering to meet the rapidly changing needs. It could mean that one day you make washing machines and the next you are processing insurance claims.

The reality of this is that you need to be able to cost effectively move from one offering to the next. The above example would most likely not work due to the competences required to flick between offerings let alone the infrastructure. In practical terms you would expect to have a range of offerings that you could move between. For example, if you made tables you might able to make desks also (and probably other furniture that uses your core processes).

As I write this article, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have already shifted their operations to remote support for service provision or are offering their products on a delivery basis. This is a good example of agility in the workplace. Same products and services, different delivery model.

Agile, therefore, is all about being able to reorganise your resources quickly to adapt to a changing customer demand.

How they work together

If you decide that having an Agile offer is something that you need to move into then Lean can work well here too. After all, why would you want an inefficient and ineffective system driving your output when you have the option to be flexible with what you provide?

Once you have worked out how you want to be agile (in terms of your offering) then Lean can be used to help you execute the agile game plan in an optimised manner.

  • The changeover between different products and services can be slick.
  • The delivery of the actual products and services can be done so efficiently.
  • Delivery systems can focus on effectiveness and ideally be synchronised with customer demand.
  • The standardisation of generic activities can be documented and built upon through continuous improvement.

The two ideologies go hand in hand. Lean naturally wants a business to be efficient, flexible and meet demand. Agile wants businesses to be able to offer different products and services to meet market needs.

Agile manufacturing vs Lean manufacturing

Being realistic

As I said earlier, this approach does require you to be realistic.

It is unlikely that the range of offerings you make to the market will be polar opposites. It might be that the strategy undertaken by your business is to slowly expand your range, document, embed and then extend again.

Knowing what your market needs is the key to all this, of course. Finding adjacent opportunities to expand is the most logical (and practical) approach.

Developing a plan to become agile and lean

So, what is your plan to become agile?

Can you see how being able to reconfigure your services or production lines could work in your business?

One of the simplest analogies that I can offer here is the game of rugby. I don’t know an awful lot about the game but I have watched it enough to appreciate the basics. During the game the ball often goes out of play. Watching the players reform their playing positions to execute a lineout or a scrum reminds me of this approach.

The team has an overall strategy. The strategy finds an obstacle and they have to perform one of these activities to get the ball back in play. They don’t stand around wondering what to do – it has been planned out in advance and everyone knows what they need to do. The response has been defined and practiced in advance.

Agile is just like this. Once you have designed how you will respond to varying customer demands you can then refine it, train it, practice it, and improve it. Doing this means that you retain the benefits of Lean whilst becoming an agile organisation.

Just the other week I was planning a fabrication shop layout with a team. They had been used to fixed locations for everything because that is the way that they have always done it. The problem was that their order book was becoming a lot more varied. Volumes, sizes, complexity, standards… All changing but ultimately each order was for a fabricated product that they were competent to produce.

We produced a range of scenarios to accommodate this changing mix of work. The most efficient scenario is selected during their weekly management meeting. We also looked at how they would minimise the changeover time to take advantage of the most efficient method of production. The costs had to be outweighed by the benefits was our only caveat. The team did not let me down and designed some simple changes that have made a significant impact. They can now demonstrate higher levels of manufacturing agility whilst still being lean.

It is possible to be both agile and lean at the same time. I hope this article have given you some ideas and cleared up the difference between Agile manufacturing vs Lean manufacturing.

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Giles Johnston

Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who consults with businesses to improve their on time delivery performance, ERP system performance and deploy Kaizen / lean production methods. Giles is also the author of 'Business Process Re-engineering'.