A comparison of agile and lean manufacturing

“Should our manufacturing operations be more lean? Or more agile? Lean and agile manufacturing are basically synonyms, aren’t they?”

Not quite.

“Lean” and “agile” tend to be used interchangeably. Like most buzzwords in manufacturing, they’re used to describe many, divergent practices, some of which are neither lean nor agile. This article will clarify the differences between Agile Manufacturing and Lean Manufacturing. By examining the overlaps between these methods, we’ll help you understand how you can apply principles from each to your operations.

The Origin of Lean and Agile Manufacturing

Though both schools of thought are common in modern manufacturing, Lean and Agile emerged from starkly different contexts.

Lean Manufacturing is based largely on the Toyota Production System, which was developed in Japan between 1948 and 1975. Toyota’s method emphasized waste reduction, maximally efficient use of resources, and respect for laborers. With the success of Toyota and Lean Manufacturing operations, Lean principles gained credibility and recognition. Soon, TPS’s Lean principles evolved into the Lean approach. The Lean methodology spread to other industries and is now a recognized approach to management.

Overhead shot of car assembly at Toyota plant

Agile manufacturing, in contrast, emerged from the world of software development. In 2001, a group of software engineers met up in a ski lodge in Utah with the goal of finding better ways to develop software. They wrote the revolutionary Agile Manifesto, which outlined a set of values and principles designed “to uncover better ways of developing software.” The ideas outlined in the manifesto have been adapted to fit many industries, and Agile Manufacturing is the application of the Agile approach to the manufacturing sector.

The Goals of Agile and Lean Methodologies

Both approaches have the same overarching goal: create more value.

Practitioners may approach this goal in different ways, but both approaches aim to increase productivity and efficiency.

Lean Manufacturing creates more value for the customer by reducing waste. There are 8 types of waste in the Lean framework: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, defects, and unutilized talent. Lean practitioners strive to do everything in the simplest way possible and by using the fewest resources possible.

For example, to reduce motion waste, an organization might group all the machines, tools, and materials needed for a production step. Thus, workers would not have to make unnecessary movements on the shop floor, such as walking to different stations or storage facilities to get what they need.

The 8 wastes of lean manufacturing

Agile Manufacturing creates more value for the customer by responding quickly to changes.

We live in a constantly evolving environment. New technologies appear every day. Customer needs change all the time. Demand for skilled labor is outpacing supply. New competitors constantly hit the market.

Agile leverages changes in the environment to yield greater value. Agile manufacturers are flexible. They tend to be technology agnostic, and comfortable turning to new technological solutions for enduring challenges. For example, faced with a growing skilled labor shortage, an agile manufacturer might embrace technology to augment their training system. Rather than have experienced operators waste time supervising trainees – or have trainees follow complicated paper-based instructions – an agile manufacturer could use digital training programs, including digital work instructions, computer vision, or AR.

Lean and Agile Manufacturing Principles

Each approach applies different principles to reach its goal.

Image comparing characteristics of agile and traditional manufacturing

Lean Manufacturing creates more value for the customer by reducing waste with Just-in-Time production, Jidoka, Heijunka, Standardized work, and Kaizen.

Let’s try to understand the gist of each of these principles.

Just-in-Time production consists in producing what is needed, just when it is needed, and just in the amount needed.

Jidoka means “automation with a human touch”. The idea behind jidoka is to use automation to detect when abnormal situations occur and immediately stop work. That way, operators don’t waste their time and skills monitoring machines.

Heijunka means “leveling”. Equalizing the type and quantity of production over a fixed period of time avoids batching and reduces costs and inventories.

Standardized work refers to establishing precise procedures for each operator, including the work sequence, the rate at which products are made, and the inventory.

Kaizen means “changing something for the better”. It is often referred to as “continuous improvement” and is extremely important to Lean Manufacturing. Through the Continuous Improvement Cycle, small and measurable changes are made to processes and products. Kaizen also strives to empower workers and listen to their insights. The concept of Kaizen is central to Agile Manufacturing as well, even though the packaging is different.

Agile Manufacturing creates more value for the customer by responding quickly to changes with rapid iterations, flexibility, bottom-up innovation, and cross-functional collaboration.

Rapid iterations imply delivering smaller pieces of value more frequently. Versions of products and processes succeed each other quickly. Organizations collect data on each version to constantly make improvements. Two ideas are important here. One, data is crucial to a successful iterative process. Two, the goal is continuous improvement (Kaizen!).

Flexibility is the ability to be easily modified, and the willingness to change. While it is important for manufacturing operations to be structured, flexible organizations do not follow a linear, predetermined plan. Rather, they adapt to changes as they come.

Bottom-up is an approach to structuring a company that gives more power to the bottom of the organization. Namely, the workers. Those closest to problems understand them best, so agile manufacturers reap the benefits of encouraging their workers to speak up. Empowering workers is another similarity between Lean Manufacturing (specifically Kaizen) and Agile Manufacturing.

While the Lean and Agile approaches agree that workers should be involved in problem-solving, the problem-solving methods themselves differ. With the Lean approach, problems are dealt with one at a time. The Agile approach follows parallel problem-solving: anyone who has access to the problem, from the bottom to the top of the company, can offer solutions. Solutions are tested in rapid iterations. Testing early and often decreases the risk of investing time and resources in a solution that will end up not being optimal. There is a higher risk associated with following a lean plan to the letter and not being flexible to adjustments along the way.

Augmentation consists in using technology to enhance workers’ capabilities rather than replacing them with machines.


Lean and Agile are two approaches to manufacturing operations that have proven their worth. While they do share some similarities, the approaches are different and organizations should adopt the right one for their context. An organization that suffers from external factors — e.g. competitors, market fluctuations, consumer behaviors — might turn to the Agile approach to adapt to those changes faster. On the other hand, a manufacturer who is facing internal inefficiencies might turn to the Lean approach to reduce waste and increase productivity. In any case, Lean and Agile methods are not mutually exclusive. Lean manufacturers can learn from Agile and vice versa.

You might easily remember Lean Manufacturing as “the one with all the Japanese words” and Agile Manufacturing as “the one with the ski lodge in Utah”, but if the distinction starts becoming blurry again, don’t hesitate to come back to this blog or to go through our Lean Manufacturing Guide and our Agile Manufacturing Guide.

Whether you are striving to become more lean or more agile, Tulip’s flexible and intuitive Frontline Operations Platform has the right tools for you. Using Tulip, engineers can create applications that guide operators and collect data from the people, machines, and processes involved in production. With Tulip, companies can digitally transform their operations and gain real-time visibility of their production in days. Start building apps for your lines with a 30-day free trial!