What is Lean Project Management?

What is Lean Project Management?

Lean project management is the application of Lean principles, perfected by Toyota, to the discipline of project management. The two fundamental focuses are: delivering value to the customer and minimizing waste, and Lean project managers strive to deliver projects successfully while remaining true to these values.

Lean names 3 types of waste (the “3M”):

  • muda - time and effort wasted on activities that provide no value to the customer
  • mura - an uneven, inconsistent production process, resulting in time and resource waste
  • muri - overuse of machines or employees.

Through the application of Lean management practices, all kinds of waste can be reduced and the process stands a chance of becoming more efficient, more predictable, value-oriented, profitable, and sustainable.

Traditional vs Lean project management process

Lean principles have been applied to project management for quite some time, following the publication of “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit” by Mary and Tom Poppendieck in 2003.

Although Lean PM is nowhere near as established as Lean manufacturing, comparing the 2 below process cycles will let you quickly appreciate the difference between a traditional, or waterfall, models of project management lifecycle, and their accepted Lean counterpart.

Traditional Project Management

Lean project management follows Deming’s cycle of change and bases on an iterative kind of process. In traditional project management, the product is delivered at the end, and many activities are going on all at once. Lean project management seeks to deliver value to customers quickly and continuously, by limiting Work in Progress.

Lean Project Management Flow

How does Lean project management work?

Lean process thinking centers on the needs of the customer. It is the customer who identifies value in your process, basing on which you map the process value stream and establish the pull-based flow. Throughout the project lifecycle, improvement opportunities are noted and acted upon, to ensure constant process growth and optimization.

Step 1: Focus on value - as defined by your customer

Along with Lean objectives, you want the project to deliver value, but a value can only be defined by the customer. Who is the customer? Is it the c-suite, the project sponsor, or the end-user of the product for which the project will be developed? Arguably, it can be either:

  • The c-suite executive or shareholders, who want the product delivered in a way that is sustainable, controlled and profitable, or
  • The end-user or customer, who will pay for the service and will be directly impacted by its quality.

Example Let’s say you’re hired for a project to build a shopping site for a health store. Who would the customer be: the owner of the store that pays for the website, or the potential shopper who will buy items from it?

In this context, the customer of the project is the owner of the store, whereas the customer of the product is the person buying the health items. But no matter who you decide the customer is, we’d argue that providing value to one should also provide value to the other.

The store owner would not want to work with a substandard site, which could turn customers away. His customers would not want the store to go out of business, as that would mean they can’t continually get their goods. Toyota’s consistently good product quality being rewarded with high customer loyalty is a living example of the success of the Lean approach to customer value-oriented process.

Step 2: Visualize the value stream

The 2 customers and 2 value streams shown in the above example reveal that there are 2 processes to look at. The process of managing the project, which would result in delivering the website on time, within budget, and according to the requirements. The other process would be the creation of the online health store that would go live on the Internet upon completion of the project.

For both processes, a separate value stream would need to be mapped, and a continuous improvement process would be implemented to ensure maximum waste reduction and highest value delivery.

It’s common for Lean project managers to aid value stream & workflow visualization with Kanban boards. As they also seek to minimize meetings and status reporting, incorporating Kanban lets anyone see the current project status at any time. Both Kanban and Lean capitalize on the application of Gemba: it’s better to see the status for oneself than to rely on a report that can be fabricated and takes several hours to complete.

Step 3: Increase process throughput

In the same way that a Lean manufacturing process requires keeping tabs on throughput and cycle time values, so does Lean project management. Lean project managers seek to get the product into their customer’s hands as quickly as possible. At the end of each Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle the project team looks at ways to improve speed and reduce waste, which enables them to deliver subsequent features to the client more efficiently.

Step 4: Transform from pull to push services

Lean managers ensure that they have customers pulling the work - signaling their demand. They ensure open communication with the customers, granting them the understanding needed to deliver functionality when it is needed. This signifies the need to understand the process takt time, as well as customer behaviors.

Limiting work in progress is an inseparable part of Lean project management. The goal is to provide the client with only the necessary items and to do it fast. This makes Lean projects much shorter than traditional ones, e.g. a year is considered a very long timeframe for a Lean project, with many companies deploying to production daily.

Traditional project buffers allocate extra time to account for risks such as scheduling and cost overruns. Lean project management uses buffers only as a way to protect a WIP constraint or a critical chain of the project - the part that takes the longest to complete. As it’s subject to change, the project manager has to keep an eye on protecting that chain with buffers and WIP limits.

Step 5: Improve continuously

In traditional project management, a Lessons Learned event is conducted as part of project closure. But the trouble with Lessons Learned is that while it can aid future projects, the opportunity for improvement in completed work has been missed.

Lean project management seeks continuous improvement. Kaizen Blitz is a dedicated 4 or 5-day event, during which relevant stakeholders are gathered to determine the root cause and a solution to a problem that has arisen within the process - there and then.

Lean Process Thinking Principles

Agile vs Lean project management

The Lean and Agile terms are often used interchangeably, which - while harmless - isn’t necessarily correct. Both Lean and Agile describe a way of approaching work in a value-focused way, but they recommend somewhat different ways of achieving it. The scale, to which the two approaches can extend in a company, is also a strong differentiator here.

Lean originates from manufacturing practices and is more of a systematic approach, an organization-wide method of streamlining how value is generated - see more above.

Agile, with roots in software engineering, also focuses on producing high value fast, but through applying short iterations and attention to perfecting team collaboration.

Going back to the example at the top, organizing a sprint-based project to quickly build the health store website would base on Agile software development recommendations, but sitting down with the store owner to discuss the best ways to deliver the best long-term experience to his clients, would be best aided with Lean strategies and could require large-scale business skills.

The bottom line is that both Lean and Agile help teams and companies to work better and deliver higher quality to their customers, and it’s common for organizations to take advantage of both methods’ recommendations, to achieve the best possible results.

In summary

If you’re following the 5 Lean principles listed above, it means you’re implementing Lean project management, and your customers will likely thank you for your efforts. Happy customers are a clear mark of a successful company and process.

Through adhering to Lean project management ideas, you can achieve:

  • shorter lead times,
  • cost reduction across the board,
  • improved quality and customer satisfaction,
  • better process efficiency and predictability.