Lean and Agile Manufacturing: commonalities and differences

The concepts of Lean and Agile Manufacturing have many elements in common, and in a sense the Agile approach can be interpreted as the natural evolution of Lean. However, while Lean presents a well-structured set of tools and methods, Agile Manufacturing is rather a broad philosophy that originated from work started in 1991 at Lehigh University. Indeed, the starting point of Agile Manufacturing is to be able to respond effectively to the increased variability, unpredictability and instability of manufacturing firms in the macroeconomic environment.

How reported in an article published by McKinsey, people often view lean and agile management as mutually exclusive, based on fundamentally different principles and approaches applicable to very different types of activities. In fact, it is thought that lean management is better suited to routine and repeatable operations, while agile applies only to creative projects or activities. In reality, both systems share a number of fundamental common goals:

  • deliver value efficiently for a customer
  • discover better ways of working to continuously learn and improve
  • transparently link strategy and goals to give teams a meaningful purpose
  • enable people to contribute and lead to maximum potential

Main commonalities between Lean and Agile Manufacturing

Based on what has just been described, we can list the following commonalities:

  • The voice of the customer as a starting point: both approaches are based on detailed analysis of specific customer requirements. In particular, Agile Manufacturing puts the focus on the need to change The requirements in the process if it brings a competitive advantage for the customer. Tools such as the Kano Model, Pareto diagram, Quality Function Deployment or product backlog can be used in this regard.
  • Establish value and make it flow: the concept of value takes on different meanings depending on the context in which you operate. Both methodologies aim to maximize value understood as a product that conforms to specific customer requirements in terms of quality, time and cost
  • Eliminate waste: both approaches aim to maximize value by eliminating everything that is not necessary for the customer. For example, while Lean refers to the top 8 wastes (we discussed them here), Agile Manufacturing aims to eliminate everything that slows down the process of changing product line configuration, from design features to production processes
  • Enabling flexibility: the benchmark methodology for rapid setups in both Lean and Agile Manufacturing is SMED. Also making inroads in Agile is the concept of Smart Tooling, that is, capable of reconfiguring itself as autonomously as possible with the help of pneumatic, hydraulic or tag systems such as rfid or nfc
  • Continuous Improvement, or Kaizen: in both approaches, reference is made to the continuous pursuit of perfection through incremental improvements on the product/process
  • Kanban: born in the context of Lean, Kanban is borrowed in the context of Agile Software Development to monitor the progress of various tasks. Similarly, Kanban is used to optimize Production flows within agile systems

Main differences between Lean and Agile Manufacturing

However, there are some differences, some substantial, between the two methodologies:

  • Origin: while Lean Manufacturing was born to improve manufacturing processes and then extended to business management and product development, Agile takes its cue from software product development and extends to business management and processes
  • Product customization: although both approaches aim to customize products through the voice of the customer, the Agile methodology enables mass customization, in a sense taking Lean’s high-volume customization to an extreme. This may seem like a detail, but it is not. Only through an agile approach, in fact, can products be reconfigured quickly and with extremely high production mixes
  • Methodological approach: while Lean is now a structured and widespread methodology within manufacturing processes, Agile Manufacturing does not yet have a methodological structure. Instead, Agile Manufacturing can be seen as an unstructured set of strategies, tools and technologies with the goal of reacting and adapting quickly to changes required by the market

Finally, while in Lean we see a prevalence of method over technology, the Agile approach involves synergies between Lean, reconfigurability, and 4.0 technologies.

Lean or Agile Manufacturing: which approach to use?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as it depends on the objectives, constraints and manufacturing environment in which the company operates. Lean Manufacturing represents a methodology that is now indispensable for improving the competitiveness of any manufacturing company. Without Lean there can be no Agile Manufacturing, which is the next evolutionary step in the presence of high business complexity, e.g., high production mix, high demand variability, uncertain macroeconomic environments.


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