What is the Difference Between Lean and Design Thinking?

I get this question a lot.  

The next question after that would be: “aren’t they all the same?” 

I decided to post this question on my twitter feed just to see what you all thought.  Thanks for the great replies!

I’m not going to go into the details of each process as there are tons of great articles written on it. The value-add I can offer is to discuss these two processes at a conceptual level so that we may understand when and how best to apply them.

The reason for much of the confusion is that there are a lot of similarities between the two processes. I often describe Lean (Agile) and Design Thinking as 2 sides of the same coin, but the context of use is very different.  What adds to the confusion is presentations on Lean methodology use Design Thinking as part of their repertoire of tools.

Some of the similarities include taking a human-centred approach to identify what customers or stakeholders desire and then redirecting efforts to focus on delivering this. Furthermore, both processes use iteration as a way to learn, refine and validate offerings to ensure that they are and continue to be meaningful.  However, this is about as far as the similarities go.

The way I usually explain the difference is as follows:

Lean focuses on optimising a product/service/process by removing “waste” so that you can deliver on the best possible experience for your customer. This assumes that this “experience” is right for your customer in the first place. Design Thinking is what you use to determine if it’s right or not.

To expand on this, Lean (as described by a good friend at IBM) is often seen as a project management methodology that allows for quick changes or improvements for an outcome that is focused on delivering the highest quality product or solution. 

Design Thinking takes a step back and asks a simple question: knowing now what our customers are looking for, what are our opportunities for our business so that we can continue to remain relevant to our customers in the future. 


Here is a handy little summary table for your conscious consumption and enjoyment.

Please feel free to share if you find this article useful?  Finally, I love to hear your thoughts, please do drop me a message below if you have any.

1 Comment
  • Derek

    May 2, 2019 at 8:42 am Reply

    That’s such a lucid description, thank you. It reminds of the one time when I told a business head about holding continuous improvement training sessions for her team and she replied that her staff had already gone through Design Thinking and hence dont need CI training!

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