Lean Web - Principles of Lean Thinking applied to Web Development

Lean manufacturing aims to reduce waste in production processes and to reduce response times to consumers from producers.

Womack and Jones1 authored five key principles for lean thinking in the context of manufacturing:

  1. Value: Identify the value of a product to a consumer.
  2. Value Stream - Identify the minimal process (steps, time, information, material) to produce the value.
  3. Flow: Make production flow through the steps.
  4. Pull: Pull between the steps (rather than pushing intermediate “inventory” that may not be used).
  5. Perfection: Reduce the number of steps and the amount of time, information, and material needed for production.

Lean software development aims to adapt lean thinking to software development.

The Poppendiecks2 authored seven principles that don’t directly provide qualified references to Womack and Jones' principles. Here, I attempt to align their principles of software development to the framework and terminology of Womack and Jones’s lean thinking principles:

  1. Evaluate Late: Decide on the end-value of a product to a consumer as late as possible. There is one value stream option per end-value option.

  2. Mind Value Stream Multiplicity and Looping: With one value stream per end-value hypothesis, can value streams share structure to eliminate waste? Value streams may have loops (iterations) that must be particularly lean to support a high learning rate.

  3. Flow: Make production flow for fast delivery and thus for rapid learning given the presence of loops in a value stream.

  4. Pull: Pulling between steps empowers the team.

  5. Perfection: Continuous refactoring facilitates ensuring integrity and optimizing the whole.

Now, I can couch a conceptualization of lean principles for web development, i.e. Lean Web principles, with clear lineage to the lean thinking principles for manufacturing and through lean principles for software development:

  1. Evaluate Resources Late: Deal in data for as long as possible. Apply transformation logic later – there are many applications. Apply presentation logic even later – there are many modes of consumption for an application. See also: Perlis' epigram3: “Functions delay binding; data structures induce binding. Moral: Structure data late in the programming process.”

  2. Mind Value Stream Multiplicity and Looping: Eliminate waste in process steps, time, information (configuration / manual signaling), and material (code, data, storage/compute infrastructure). Can web dev processes share logic? Pay particular attention to waste in value stream loops (iterations).

  3. Flow: Choose continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD).

  4. Pull: Choose distributed version control for code, data, and storage/compute infrastructure (as code).

  5. Perfection: Can it all fit in your head, to facilitate conceptual integrity and strategic refactoring?

Finally, I am well aware of Chris Ferdinandi and his excellent exposition on Lean Web thinking and associated three principles. Here’s how I think his principles may map to those above:

  1. Embrace the Platform: This relates to evaluating resources late. Can you exchange data as RDF (e.g. serialized as JSON-LD) over HTTP? Can you exchange logic for inference and validation as RDF data as well, via the RDFS/OWL and SHACL standards of the Web platform? Can you exchange logic for presentation as HTML (templates) and CSS? If your front-end requires operational processes, can that be done using vanilla JavaScript?

  2. Small and Modular: This relates to minding value stream multiplicity and looping. There is a lot of opportunity to eliminate waste and reuse functionality (especially functionality provided by the platform!).

  3. The Web is for Everyone: This relates to evaluating resources late (why prematurely optimize for applications and consumption use cases and thus exclude potential stakeholders?) and pulling (empower people by encouraging them to pull rather than telling them to pick up whatever is pushed).

  1. J. P. Womack and D. T. Jones, Lean thinking: banish waste and create wealth in your corporation. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996. ↩︎

  2. M. Poppendieck and T. Poppendieck, Lean software development: an agile toolkit. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2003. ↩︎

  3. A. J. Perlis, “Special Feature: Epigrams on programming,” SIGPLAN Not., vol. 17, no. 9, pp. 7–13, Sep. 1982, doi: 10.1145/947955.1083808. Online at http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/perlis-alan/quotes.html↩︎