Lean Project Management

woman on laptop

What is the Lean project management methodology?

Lean project management is a project management methodology that maximizes customer value and minimizes waste by optimizing the flow of materials or tasks through the system as a whole. Lean project managers and practitioners seek continual improvements in efficiency by testing and analyzing different ideas and modifications to existing practices.

The Lean philosophy has its beginnings in the Toyota Production System developed after World War II, which encouraged employees to be part of the solution for continual revision of techniques and processes.

Today, the Lean methodology has expanded into all sorts of business contexts, not just manufacturing. Insights derived from the Lean process have proven valuable in project management strategies across multiple sectors, allowing for the increased ability to streamline and overcome potential pitfalls

Aims of Lean project management.

Lean project management has the potential to help teams realize multiple simultaneous goals, including:

  • Reducing overall costs: By applying Lean strategies of looking at the flow of materials or tasks and reflecting on outcomes, teams can more readily and continually identify cost reductions.

  • Increasing productivity: In the same way that teams can reduce costs by careful analysis and the constant revision of flow, they can iteratively improve individual and team productivity. 

  • Aligning efforts with customer satisfaction: With customer value as a guiding principle, the Lean process leads to better alignment of efforts with customer satisfaction goals. 

  • Increasing teamwork and collaborative thinking: The process of implementing Lean strategies encourages communication, problem-solving, and collaborative thinking across all levels. 


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Five principles of Lean project management.

There are five core principles of Lean project management. Each principle builds on the last, forming a cycle that allows for continuous revision and improvement in any process.

1. Specify the value in the eyes of the customer.

Value can be defined by what customers are willing to pay for. But because customers are often unable to articulate what they want, clearly identifying value isn’t always a simple and straightforward process. Interviews and surveys can help your team build a clearer picture of customer expectations for your service or product. 

Try to find the answers to questions like these: How can your product or service help the customer complete a task or accomplish a goal? What does the customer need, and why do they need it? How does your product or service meet these needs?


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2. Identify the value stream for each product.

The next principle involves identifying the value stream. How does the value you previously identified flow through the systems or processes that create the product or service? The key is to look at each part of the process and ask how and if it directly contributes to the value of the final product. If it does not contribute to the value, you must determine if it is still necessary or if you can eliminate it as waste. 

As part of this process in a manufacturing scenario, you might ask how to source materials, where they are delivered, what tools are required to work with the materials, what steps are in production, how quality is maintained throughout, how the process differs based on the order size, and so on. 

If you work in a field like software development, the process might look a little different. You might instead identify the steps of design, development, testing, and review, and look closely at who does each step and how to implement them.

3. Make the value flow and eliminate waste.

After identifying all parts of the value stream, you can eliminate any parts of the process now considered waste and work toward creating a smoother flow. To make sure this happens, you may need to break down and reconfigure different steps, redistribute the workload, and cross-train employees. 

In particular, be on the lookout for lag time, bottlenecks, and other inefficiencies, including unfruitful multitasking or capacity shortages.

4. Let the customer pull the flow.

The idea behind this principle is that the needs of the customer should pull the flow of the work. In other words, instead of acquiring resources and materials ahead of time or overproducing products in advance—both of which can lead to extra storage cost or material waste—the workflow is instigated and aligned directly with customer need, with the team only ordering materials when needed and the product being generated just in time. 

This notion of pull applies to more than just manufacturing scenarios. If you are leading a team to provide a service or perform internal operations within a company, letting demand pull the workflow ensures that resources, including employee work hours, are only allocated when needed, which results in greater efficiency and predictability.

5. Continuously improve in the pursuit of perfection.

Employees involved in all steps of the process should aim for continuous improvement in everything they do. This can include reflecting on past projects, identifying weak points, and innovating new methods to try and test in the future. 

Apply these five steps cyclically, so that each iteration results in continual improvement and streamlining, always in pursuit of greater perfection.


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Lean project management in practice.

There are a few practical methods that fit underneath the Lean project management umbrella. These practices are concrete techniques that teams can use to bring Lean ideas to bear on their work. 

Plan-do-check-act.

The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) method is a way to implement continuous improvement within the Lean paradigm. You can think of this as a sort of business management scientific method. The four cyclic steps involved are:

  • Plan: Define the objective and determine the processes required to meet that objective.

  • Do: Carry out the plan as designed.

  • Check: Evaluate the results of implementing the plan, looking for ways in which you met or did not meet objectives.

  • Act: After analyzing the results, determine ways to improve on the process and how you might implement those new methods in the next plan phase.

Kanban.

The word “kanban” is Japanese for billboard or signboard, and it is an idea that originated in the same Toyota plants where Lean principles were born. In essence, Kanban is an Agile methodology that allows you to visualize a project to maximize efficiency and improve continuously. 

In Kanban, you first visualize the workflow, often by creating cards to represent each task, and place them in columns on a Kanban board that indicates whether they have yet to begin, are in process, or have been completed (or at various other stages in between.) Ideally, you should minimize the amount of work in progress (WIP) at any one time to avoid bottlenecks and streamline the workflow as much as possible. 

Six Sigma.

Six Sigma is a Lean process similar to some of the other cycles of continuous improvement described above. The steps in the Six Sigma cycle are: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. The name “Six Sigma” refers to the goal of improving a process so much that you can create a product that is 99.99966% free of defects. The main goal of the Six Sigma methodology is to reduce process variation and enhance process control.

Learn to lead Lean.

The successful implementation of Lean methodologies not only reduces waste and helps generate greater value for customers, but it also creates collaborative and efficient work environments. By drawing on the ideas and experiences of all workers involved in different parts of the project life cycle, Lean project management ensures everyone has a personal stake in the process and in the value it delivers.