The age of cargo cult Agile must end.

Jason Yip
14 min readFeb 20, 2023

Via LinkedIn, I learned about an article called “The age of Agile must end” by Michael Burnett, and I’ve since seen it pop up again in other forums.

I found the article to be filled with misconceptions but given enough people have somehow found it insightful, I thought it might be worth writing a response.

At first, I thought “The age of Agile must end” was an example of the cargo cult reinvention cycle but looking more closely, it seems like it’s both a cargo cult understanding of Agile AND arguing for something that is not aligned with Agile. I don’t necessarily think this was an intentional straw man argument though.

Misconception: Agile comes from Lean

Burnett suggests Agile came from trying to apply Lean principles to software development. This is incorrect.

Dr. Robert Charette explored Lean applied to software development in the early 1990s (and Kent Beck recalls hearing Dr. Charette talk at a Cutter Consortium meeting) but the Agile community didn’t really pick up on this until much later… so Lean applied to software development was mainly popularized by Mary and Tom Poppendieck in their books, Lean Software Development (2003), Implementing Lean Software Development (2006), Leading Lean Software Development (2009), and The Lean Mindset (2013). The Poppendieck Lean books provided both a conceptual explanation for why Extreme Programming / Agile worked and a source of new ideas, some from Lean Manufacturing (wastes, value stream mapping, etc.) but also some from Lean Product Development (Last Responsible Moment, Set-Based Concurrent Engineering, etc.).

An alternate path introducing “Lean” to software development came from David J. Anderson, initially Theory of Constraints in Agile Management for Software Engineering (2003) and then “kanban” in Kanban (2010). This “Lean” path is more about flow principles from Don Reinertsen’s Principles of Product Development Flow (2009) than “how Toyota approaches things” (i.e., Toyota Production System, Toyota Product Development System, Toyota Way). (NOTE: This is a simplified summary, see A Brief History of Kanban for Knowledge Work for a more detailed history)

Finally, Eric Ries would combine Extreme Programming and Steve Blank’s Customer Development to create Lean Startup (2011).

You might notice that all of this happened after the Agile Manifesto was published (2001), never mind…

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Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl