How to Advance Lean Software Development (Beyond the 'Toyota Way')

The concept of lean software traces its origins to lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System. Building software is much different than building a car, but lessons about reducing waste and achieving continuous improvement apply nonetheless.

By Matthew Heusser
Mon, May 21, 2012

CIO — The Japanese word Muda loosely translates as waste. The core element of lean manufacturing is to eliminate waste—or, in more North American terms, to "cut the fat." While applying lean concepts to manufacturing may seem straightforward, there is little agreement on what that term even means for software, or if it applies.

I'll start at the beginning, explaining where lean manufacturing came from, and, apply the lean idea to software development and cover the implications of lean software.

scrap metal
Waste and rework may not be as obvious in software as it is in manufacturing. While there are no rejected products on the floor, the costs of waste and rework can be just as staggeringly expensive. (Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives.)

Where 'Lean' Came From

You may know that lean comes from Japanese methods, most notably the Toyota Production System (TPS), which was largely created by Taichi Ohno, Toyota's chief engineer. The word lean, however, did not come from anywhere in the Far East but was first used by two American researchers, James Womack and Daniel Jones, in their 1990 book The Machine that Changed The World: The Story of Lean Production.

The great business success story of the day was McDonald's, who took a good burger and standardized it. Womack and Jones did the same thing to TPS; they took the practices they observed and made them rules, calling the collection of methods lean."

We'll talk about the practices in a moment. For now, let's talk about standards, heavily associated with "lean" and one principle of the 5S method.

The first great paradox of lean is the combination of standardization with continual improvement. After all, if you tell a team to do the same thing every time, how can it experiment with new methods and improve? British author and psychologist John Seddon takes the argument one step further. Not only did Womack and Jones study what the Japanese were doing at the moment and completely miss any improvement opportunities, Seddon says; they also viewed the Toyota Revolution through the lens of 1980's American business, which was caught in a love affair with standards.

Driving Out (Software) Waste

If practices are supposed to continually evolve, how exactly do you "do" lean? Mary Poppendieck, co-author of two books on lean software, gave me one clue in an interview. "Lean isn't something you do," she says. "It is a way of thinking."

The simple part of the lean philosophy is the waste. If you have technical staff sitting around, doing nothing, waiting for a build, that is waste. If they are waiting to set up a server, or need training to complete a task, that is also waste. Excess work in progress inventory is waste.

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