7 Principles of Lean Software Development and How to Implement Them


7 Principles of Lean Software Development and How to Implement Them

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Do you feel immediately overwhelmed every time you consider a new software development project? Do you feel stuck in a cycle of useless back-and-forths and discussions, without actually getting much work done? Does your team feel like they need to go through hundreds of additional steps to actually accomplish anything?

If you’ve answered positively to any of these questions, maybe it’s time for you to try a new software development method. SENLA worked on hundreds of projects and tried a lot of different methodologies, one of them being Lean Software Development. This method is perfect for reaching your project goals quickly, efficiently, and with little distraction - but it’s not without its downsides. 

On the spot

Lean Software Development aims to eliminate waste during production and deliver more value to customers.

It offers 7 principles to build your software development processes around:
1. Cutting waste
2. Building in quality
3. Creating knowledge
4. Postponing commitment
5. Quick delivery
6. Teams empowerment
7. Optimizing the whole

It makes sense to try Lean Software Development if:
⦿ You’re working on a tight budget and schedule
⦿ You struggle with delays and bottlenecks
⦿ You operate in a rapidly changing market
⦿ You end up with lots of bugs and customer complaints
⦿ Your team members feel disempowered and uninvolved

In this article, we are going to explain what Lean Software Development is, what are the benefits of it, when it’s utilized the best way and when is the time to avoid it. Read on to find out if this approach is for you!

What is Lean Software Development?

Lean Software Development (LSD) is an approach to software development that focuses on eliminating waste and delivering more value to customers. 

Originally coined in the automotive sector by Toyota, the concept of cutting out waste and inefficiencies was picked up by several manufacturers. By 2003, it found a home in the software world, courtesy of Tom and Mary Poppendieck’s seminal work, "Implementing Lean Software Development."

The focus was simple: eliminate anything that didn't contribute to the end product’s quality or timely delivery.

The main difference between lean development in manufacturing and lean software development is that the latter is a bit more flexible. There’s more room for changes to the final result, so there can be additional check-ins to make sure the software development team is still on the right path. 

There are 7 guiding principles that convey these core values of LSD. Let’s go through all of them!

7 principles of LSD

7 Principles of Lean Software Development

Principle 1: Cut waste

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

The first thing to do with Lean Software Development is to get rid of anything that is:
a) not necessary to the project and 
b) slows you down.
Basically, these are all the processes that don’t contribute direct value to the project. For example, the following activities could be considered “waste” in LSD:

Hand-offs: Transferring tasks from one person or team to another slows things down. Passing on tasks from one team to another typically involves outlining a feature, considering its specifications, designs, and special scenarios, and setting up additional meetings to discuss all the questions the new team might have.

Waiting/Delays: This form of inefficiency arises when a member of the development team encounters a roadblock and must wait to be cleared before proceeding with their highest-priority assignment.

Typically, the completion of the task is contingent on the finalization and approval of the design, documentation, or other pending matters — or the making of a different decision. During this waiting period, the team member often diverts their attention to tasks of lesser importance and value, which brings us to the next point.

Task Switching: Switching between tasks usually happens when developers come up against obstacles that stall the development process or when a single specialist is attempting to juggle multiple projects simultaneously. Task switching prevents experts from dedicating their full attention to one process, muddying up their work.

Repeated Learning: Lack of proper documentation means processes get repeated. For example, instead of training the QA team once on how to deploy a feature for testing and documenting it for further reference, the developers have to explain it over and over again, each time scheduling a new meeting.

Unneeded Features: Low-priority features divert resources from more valuable tasks. Even if a stakeholder insists on a specific feature that will be rarely used, it's essential to focus on what brings the most value to allocate resources effectively.

Incomplete Work: Anything partially done but never finished wastes resources. This can be unreleased features, unproductive meetings, or unresolved bugs. None of these add value and should be avoided.

If you decide to try Lean Software Development, here’s how to make sure you implement its first principle in your development cycle. 

How to cut waste:

  • Delay detailed planning until necessary to keep information current.
  • Focus on small, valuable software increments and measure their impact.
  • Design a minimal feature set and adaptable architecture to start generating revenue quickly.
  • Set dedicated periods for single tasks to minimize context-switching.
  • Foster regular communication to share knowledge and streamline hand-offs.
  • Avoid work that lacks a clear path to completion or impact, like pointless meetings or features with doubtful utility.
  • Optimize the whole software development process, rather than focusing on individual tasks or components.
  • Continuously improve the software development process through feedback and iteration.
  • Document recurring processes and tasks to facilitate training. 
  • Build quality into the development pipeline to avoid defects and rework.

Principle 2: Build in quality

A picture illustrating one of the principles of LSD

This principle emphasizes the importance of integrating quality measures into the development process from the get-go, rather than treating them as an afterthought. The idea is to create a system that inherently minimizes errors and inefficiencies, rather than having to go back to fix them later. This approach stands in contrast to conservative models where quality assurance tests are often conducted after the development phase, requiring significant resources to find and fix bugs.

Quality is seen as everyone's responsibility, not just that of the QA team. Developers, designers, and even product managers are encouraged to consider the implications of quality at each stage of the process. 

This could involve a variety of practices such as automated testing, code reviews, and continuous integration to catch issues early, as well as the thorough research of the target audience and prioritizing their feedback.

The principle not only saves time and resources but also helps in maintaining a company's reputation by ensuring that the product is as free from defects as possible when it reaches the customer. By building in quality from the start, companies can also reduce the long-term costs associated with bug fixes, customer service, and lost sales due to a poorly functioning product.

How to build in quality:

  • Streamline code through regular refactoring for simplicity and readability.
  • Prioritize quality in decision-making. Use unit tests to catch bugs early, then add functional tests to align with business goals.
  • Utilize automated UI tests for immediate feedback during refactoring.
  • Use code reviews to enforce best practices like simplicity and adaptability, not just as a quality check.

Principle 3: Create knowledge

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

We already touched on the challenges with training and education when it comes to software development. LSD aims to optimize the learning processes inside your company and enable developers to acquire new skills and knowledge efficiently.

Here are some practices you can use to facilitate education for developers.

How to create knowledge:

  • Learn from each release by tracking key metrics and analyzing data to understand user behavior. Avoid focusing on misleading vanity metrics.
  • Share knowledge at the right time to ensure it's useful and relevant. Sharing too early or too late can lead to wasted effort or missed opportunities.
  • Boost knowledge transfer through clear communication. Use visuals like graphs and mockups, and tailor the detail level to your audience — big picture for managers, technical details for engineers.
  • Facilitate the exchange of knowledge among junior, middle, and senior developers.

Our Practice

We make sure there’s consistent learning going on by creating special development pods we call SENLA Units. It typically consists of one senior developer who oversees everything, middle developers who do more complicated tasks, and a couple of junior developers who carry out simpler tasks and learn from their colleagues. This pod structure enables all the developers to exchange experience and knowledge with each other. 

Principle 4: Postpone commitment

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

This principle of Lean Software Development refers to delaying decisions until the last responsible moment.

In other words, make decisions as late as possible when you have the most information, but not so late that it negatively impacts the project. This principle is based on the idea that making early commitments can limit options and may lead to suboptimal solutions. That comes from the assumption that you may have committed to a path based on incomplete or outdated information.

For example, you avoid pre-committing to delivering a set feature list for a release several months down the line. Instead, you adapt it based on ongoing customer feedback and changing market conditions.

How to postpone commitment:

  • Avoid locking into decisions; keep them flexible and reversible. Delay irreversible choices as long as possible, gathering ample information to minimize risks and costs.
  • Steer clear of rigid designs and code to maintain adaptability, aligning your product with market needs.
  • Opt for a modular architecture for easier, quicker modifications compared to monolithic systems.

Principle 5: Deliver fast

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

In software development, a faraway deadline surprisingly can be more of a curse than a gift. When you have plenty of time and resources on your hands, it’s much easier to get lost in setting up unnecessary meetings and engineering additional features, which we already know is not considered great in Lean Software Development.

A tighter schedule forces your team to cut out all the junk and focus on delivering the working product. Additionally, it allows you to keep in time with the market and quickly receive customer feedback which is invaluable for improving your product.

For example, when we were working with Abbott, we needed to deliver an MVP for their educational platform in just four months, so we decided to go with the Lean Startup methodology for the project.

How to deliver fast:

  • Prioritize getting a deliverable product increment quickly by focusing on essentials and avoiding perfectionism. 
  • Make sure your engineers align with sprint goals and don’t misinterpret them.
  • Combine heavy documentation like SRS with executable tests to serve dual purposes.
  • Limit work-in-progress to enhance task completion and focus.
  • Plan sprints with about 80% of team capacity, leaving room for unexpected issues.
  • Refactor legacy code to be change-tolerant, but stay mindful of time and business needs.
  • Implement Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery to catch issues early.

Principle 6: Empower teams

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

This aspect focuses on enabling teams to make decisions, solve problems, and improve processes autonomously. Instead of a hierarchical system where decisions are primarily made by management, Lean Software Development advocates for empowering those who are closest to the work and are most knowledgeable about the specific challenges and opportunities that exist.

This means giving teams not just the responsibility but also the authority to make important decisions related to their work. This can include things like task prioritization, choosing technical solutions, and making workflow adjustments. Empowering a team often leads to higher levels of engagement, improved morale, faster problem-solving, and ultimately, a more efficient and effective development process.

How to empower teams:

  • Value each team member as more than just a resource. Giving developers authority to make decisions increases their sense of purpose. 
  • Keep the team aligned by regularly sharing product goals.
  • Foster a culture of continuous learning and open dialogue for collective improvement.

Principle 7: Optimize the whole

A picture illustrating one of the principles of lean software development

This principle emphasizes the importance of looking at a development process holistically, rather than focusing solely on its individual components.

In practice, this means you should avoid optimizing individual steps of a process in a way that sub-optimizes the entire system. For example, if one department streamlines its procedures to speed up its own tasks but causes delays for downstream departments, then the system as a whole needs to be more streamlined.

The aim is to make improvements that benefit the entire process, from start to finish, not just isolated parts of it.

How to optimize holistically:

  • Don't ignore issues or errors. When a problem arises, halt the process, diagnose the issue, fix it, and implement measures to prevent recurrence.
  • Prioritize simplicity before automation. A complex process will not only be time-consuming to automate but also difficult to modify later. Streamline the process first, then consider automation.
  • Strike a balance between minimalism and value. Ensure your product has the essential features for rapid delivery, yet offers enough utility to fulfill business goals.

Lean Software Development and Agile: what’s the difference?

Lean Software Development can be used both as a standalone methodology and in conjunction with other frameworks or methodologies. The latter variant is often more widespread to create a more comprehensive approach.

These combinations aim to achieve this by fusing the strengths of both constituents. For example, a team might use Scrum's sprint structure but apply Lean principles to eliminate waste and improve flow within those sprints.

Lean Software Development and Agile

LSD and Agile are closely related but there are some distinctions that set them apart:

  • Scope of application: LSD takes a broader view, often looking at an entire organization or value stream, whereas Agile is commonly more focused on software development teams and processes.
  • Methodological details: Agile frameworks like Scrum come with specific roles and ceremonies, making them more prescriptive. Lean offers a more generalized set of guidelines.
  • Metrics: Lean focuses on metrics such as Lead Time and Cycle Time, while Agile may not prescribe specific metrics but values working software as the primary measure of progress.

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What are the benefits of Lean Software Development?

Before adopting any new development methodology, it's crucial to understand both its benefits and limitations. Here are the key advantages of using Lean software development:

  • Resource savings: Eliminating waste enables your team to conserve valuable resources like time and money, such as reducing support and maintenance expenses.
  • Customer-centric output: The Lean approach directs all efforts toward delivering value to end-users, resulting in a high-value product.
  • Faster feedback: Continuous improvement and fast iterations mean that changes can be made more quickly in response to customer feedback.
  • Autonomous teams: Lean principles empower team members to make independent decisions, eliminating the need for approvals or directives from stakeholders.
  • Modular architecture: LSD advocates for modularity which makes the software more scalable.
  • Transparency: Lean encourages transparent communication and a visual management system (like Kanban boards), which helps in identifying bottlenecks and risks earlier.

What are the challenges of Lean Software Development?

Of course, we couldn’t talk about the benefits of Lean without also mentioning some of the drawbacks of this software development approach.

  • Specialized hiring needs: Lean's emphasis on team autonomy necessitates a more selective hiring process. It's not just about bringing in highly skilled developers, but also product-focused professionals who can contribute holistically to product development.
  • Late decision-making: While many organizations prefer to make intricate decisions upfront — often a requirement due to legal considerations — Lean advocates for deferring decisions until the last responsible moment. This can create unease and disrupt the decision-making comfort zone for stakeholders.
  • Risk of over-simplification: In the quest to eliminate waste, there's a risk that essential activities or features might be cut, undermining the quality or functionality of the product.
  • Resource constraints: Lean aims to use resources as efficiently as possible, but if not managed correctly, this can lead to overburdening of staff and potential burnout.
  • Measurement challenges: Lean focuses on value-based metrics, and determining the right ones to track can be complex.
  • Organizational change: Although not a direct shortcoming of Lean, transitioning to this methodology may necessitate company restructuring. Team members must be willing to adapt their work habits and embrace new practices, and resistance to these changes can be a hurdle.

When should you try Lean Software Development?

Opting for Lean Software Development can be beneficial under various circumstances, but it is particularly well-suited for the following situations:

  • If your team or project has noticeable inefficiencies, delays, or bottlenecks that are increasing costs and slowing down delivery, Lean can help you identify and eliminate this waste.
  • If your business priorities include a heightened focus on customer satisfaction, LSD's principles can align well with these goals.
  • In rapidly changing markets, Lean's emphasis on quick iterations and adaptability can be a significant asset.
  • Lean Software Development can be beneficial for complex, large-scale projects that involve coordination between multiple teams and stakeholders, as it provides a framework for prioritization and decision-making.
  • If quality has been an issue — perhaps you're seeing too many bugs, customer complaints, or other quality-related problems — Lean helps you take care of it from the very beginning of the project.
  • When team members feel disempowered or disconnected from the broader goals of a project, LSD’s focus on giving individuals and teams authority can boost morale and performance.
  • If you're working under a tight budget or time and resource constraints, Lean's focus on efficiency and eliminating waste can help you do more with less.
  • If your projects have high uncertainty or variability, the Lean principle of delaying commitments until the last responsible moment can be advantageous.

If you find that the multiple points above resonate with your current situation, it could be an opportune time to explore Lean Software Development. However, implementing this methodology is not a minor undertaking; it often involves a shift in organizational culture and processes. Make sure to consider the challenges and invest in proper training and change management practices for a successful transition.

Find the perfect software development approach with SENLA

Whether you want to find self-sufficient talent to strengthen your team or create a product on a tight schedule, SENLA can make all your Lean dreams come true!

Not only can we share our knowledge of Lean Software Development and incorporate it into our collaboration. We can also recommend a more fitting methodology if needed. We can find the perfect match that will aid your project, not hinder it. So don’t hesitate — fill in the form below and let’s make your project a success!

Why Senla?

Successfully finished projects

Our top-notch teams have been developing software since 2012 and have successfully completed 350+ projects with positive feedback. Check out some of our success stories.

Commitment to transparency

We understand that the success of a project lies in the ability to communicate and exchange information. That's why we are fully transparent with our clients about our development approaches and processes.

Reduced micromanagement

We overtake all routine project management activities and free you to focus on your business-critical ones while still preserving the possibility of direct communication, if necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What software development approaches do you work with at SENLA?

All of them! To be exact, we actively encourage our experts to have experience and knowledge of multiple software development models so they can seamlessly integrate into the Client's teams and processes.

Can you recommend the best software development model for my project?

Sure! Our professionals will determine the most effective development model for your project, taking into account all your requirements and wishes. 

I am not happy with my current vendor. Can you overtake the development?

If you are not satisfied with your existing partnership, you can transition the work to us. We will take the ball and run with it.

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