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The 7 Principles of Lean Software Development Explained

April 27, 2022 • Andriy Obrizan • 8 min read

Lean software development is an approach to software creation that focuses on delivering maximum value to customers through resource and process optimization. It borrows much from lean manufacturing, a concept first introduced by Toyota as an attempt to remove redundancies (human labor, costs, repetitive or unnecessary tasks) from its production cycle.

In its essence, lean software development is a philosophy, not a project management methodology. So, it does not regulate how a product should be built. Instead, it offers seven fundamental principles that a company is free to adopt.

1. Eliminate Waste

It’s a core principle of lean software development. The term “waste” means anything that does not contribute to product value but eats up the resources. Examples include:

  • Unfinished pieces of code that will never be completed
  • Low-quality code that needs to be rewritten
  • Extra functions that bring no value to users
  • Task handoffs, managerial overhead, or task switching
  • Relearning things due to poor documentation practices
  • Any delays in development, for example, caused by work overload or bureaucracy

The list goes on. The reasons behind waste depend on the specific project. So, before eliminating waste, you need to pinpoint any activities or processes that bring no value to your product and can be skipped. Usually, programmers use value-stream mapping for this purpose.

In short, value-stream mapping is detailed workflow visualization. Once a map is created, a team can easily analyze the product delivery process and identify unnecessary steps, or waste.

You can find a lot of value-stream mapping tools in the market; Lucidchart, Creatly, and Visual Paradigm are just a few examples. Most of these tools provide customizable templates, so you won’t need to create your map from scratch.

2. Amplify Learning

This step can be broken down into two stages: accumulating knowledge and creating a knowledge-sharing environment within a team. The term “knowledge” has a broad meaning in lean software development. In addition to hard skills such as expertise in certain technologies, it covers the understanding of user needs.

Here are some practices a team can implement to amplify learning:

  • Pair programming and peer code review
  • Knowledge-sharing sessions and training events
  • Creating a knowledge base and code repository
  • Running tests immediately after the code is written
  • Gathering customer feedback

Why is amplifying learning so important? As we just said, relearning is a waste — it’s costly and adds no value to the final product delivery. If you amplify learning, you can eliminate this waste and speed up development. On top of that, frequent feedback loops allow developers to build a product tailored specifically to what customers expect. The team will not waste time developing functionalities no one needs.

3. Decide as Late as Possible

This principle minimizes uncertainty before any critical development decisions. The software market is volatile: customer expectations are growing, technologies become more advanced, and competitors keep rolling out new products and offers. All these factors can impact the product you’re building by re-prioritizing features or making some tasks in your backlog irrelevant.

To avoid getting trapped by decisions made earlier in the development process, you should put off committing to anything until the last responsible moment. Then you can make a decision based on facts. Here is a list of practices to help you implement this principle:

  • Planning broadly, without too much detail
  • Always leaving room for change
  • Experimenting to gather as much information as possible
  • Putting off irreversible decisions till the last moment

When development is agile and most decisions are informed, a team can make changes on the go without too much rework. It means less waste and more efficiency.

4. Deliver as Fast as Possible

Delivering fast is another key principle of lean software development. It allows a team to test assumptions early on. Following this rule, programmers will not pile up waste by building functions that customers will give the thumbs down to.

Practices that speed up time-to-market and support this principle include:

  • Developing a product iteratively (usually in 2-4 week sprints)
  • Using up-to-date prioritization methods like the MoSCow technique to prioritize features
  • Releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) to get customer feedback

These practices bring a number of benefits. First, the sooner you show customers your product, the sooner you get customer feedback. It means you’ll be able to better adjust your product to the current customer needs in the next iteration. Second, releasing a product before other companies offer similar software gives you a huge competitive edge. Third, delivering fast saves money and makes the development process more result-oriented.

5. Empower the Team

The concept of lean software development is all about respect. A healthy working environment facilitates creativity and initiative and prevents burnout.

Here are some go-to practices to empower your team:

  • Allowing team members to share ideas safely
  • Ensuring that all team members have the same product vision
  • Entrusting employees with making independent decisions about their tasks
  • Recognizing performance and professional achievements
  • Encouraging people to speak up at work

That said, some managers believe that the way developers feel at work is more a people issue than a development challenge. It might be true. But this issue has such a big impact on development that it cannot be ignored.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout syndrome is characterized by energy depletion, a negative attitude at work, and reduced efficacy. The Haystack survey shows that 83% of programmers reported suffering from burnout, and the COVID-19 pandemic made this problem even worse for many of them. Can unmotivated and exhausted developers generate good ideas and work fast? We doubt it.

By underestimating the principle of team empowerment, you risk wiping out many gains enabled by lean development.

6. Build Quality In

Lean software development focuses on delivering value. But a software product riddled with bugs and errors brings little value to users. So quality assurance is a fundamental element of the lean philosophy.

The principle of building quality in says that software issues should be solved immediately, not later on. The idea is that a team creates a high-quality product from the get-go without expecting somebody else to correct the errors in the final product.

Examples of good practices based on this principle include:

  • Checking product quality after each step
  • Introducing pair programming to identify errors early on
  • Practicing test-driven development
  • Automating testing to streamline the process
  • Refactoring code regularly

Building quality in is a critical principle of lean software development, but it’s also the trickiest one. You are walking a tightrope between assuring quality and avoiding too much testing that creates waste. How much testing is “too much”? It depends on the case. That’s why it is essential to work with a professional development team that is familiar with the lean philosophy and has hands-on experience in practicing its principles.

7. Optimize the Whole

According to this principle, a business should optimize the whole system rather than its separate parts to deliver real value to users. Without a holistic view of the project, a team risks making mistakes that will generate more waste.

For example, if the users are desperate for a new feature and the programmers agree to add it in a rush, the resulting code might be too complex or bug-ridden. They will have to rework it later, which means more waste piling up.

The following practices will help you optimize the whole:

  • Ensuring that all team members have a good understanding of the product they’re building, the strategy behind it, and the related development process
  • Optimizing the entire value stream, not separate system functions
  • Ensuring effective and borderless communication within the team

By following this principle, you will also bond your team and strengthen its commitment to the project.

Conclusion

Lean software development is a concept that helps build the right product in the right way. It is based on seven key principles: eliminating waste, amplifying learning, deciding late, delivering fast, empowering the team, building quality in, and optimizing the whole. By following them, programmers can develop products faster and better, matching the current customer needs.

Would you like to hire a lean team for your next project? Look no further! LeanyLabs provides custom web development services and has helped many companies to achieve their objectives with top-notch software solutions. The concept of lean development is at the heart of our business. Get in touch — we’ll be happy to discuss your future product!

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