Lean is a business methodology, born of a widespread manufacturing methodology, that’s helping businesses achieve more predictable delivery, greater efficiency, and a customer-centric mindset. Lean project management is the application of Lean principles to project management.
Applying Lean principles in project management can empower project managers with the visibility and clarity to deliver projects on time, on budget, and on value.
Lean and Project Management
Project managers often spend most of their time collecting, analyzing, and reporting status information between various tools, spreadsheets, and documents. This leaves little time – or mental bandwidth – to contribute to more strategic efforts, such as:
- Conducting root cause analyses on recurring problems
- Identifying blockers or bottlenecks in processes
- Working with teams to identify opportunities for better alignment with the PMO
- Working to determine inefficiencies in tool stacks and determining how to eliminate unnecessary effort
Lean encourages teams and the project managers who work with them to eliminate wasteful processes, reduce context switching, and optimize for value delivery.
This enables teams to stay focused on delivering value and frees project managers to contribute more strategically to initiatives. While there is no defined Lean project management methodology, there are several key Lean principles that can guide project managers toward better results.
Deliver projects on time by enabling flow
One of the most important Lean principles in project management is to deliver fast by managing flow. Flow is a measure of how efficiently work moves through a team’s process.
The concept of Lean flow is often illustrated using the example of an interstate: When an interstate is at 100% capacity (when lots of cars are trying to move in the same direction at the same time), we get what is called a traffic jam: Traffic is slow-moving, if not completely stopped. If, however, the road is at 50% capacity, each car can move much faster along the road, reaching its destination sooner.
Think of how flow and capacity might affect the speed of delivery across a team or organization: If too much work is being worked on at the same time, work moves slowly. When each person is balancing dozens of projects at once, it becomes more difficult to get the right people working on any piece of work at the right time. The effect of this is further compounded by the burden of status meetings, excessive documentation, and other means of getting everyone (at least temporarily) on the same page.
When teams focus on flow, they limit how much is being worked on at a time and focus on moving work through the system as quickly as possible. When this is done across an organization, teams and project managers gain a better understanding of the relationship between capacity and flow, and make smarter decisions to enable faster, more predictable delivery.
Deliver on budget by eliminating process waste
Most people familiar with any flavor of Lean methodology know that a key element of Lean involves eliminating waste. In Lean manufacturing, waste refers to anything that does not add value.
Since knowledge work often follows a less tangible process, it can be tricky to identify waste in the process. Waste in knowledge work can be defined as anything that does not add value to the customer. This can be process inefficiency, handoff delays, communication breakdowns, and more.
An example of waste in project management processes, from a Lean project management perspective, is the work it takes to collect, analyze, and base decisions on project status information. By the time project managers can gain a clear picture of initiative status to report to leadership, their information could be inaccurate.
There’s also risk associated with this waste. If project managers consistently relay inaccurate information to executives, and executives use this information to guide strategic decision-making, decisions could be made based on inefficient processes and inaccurate information, which gets in the way of maximizing customer value. The time spent assembling and assessing status information would be better spent working with teams to improve the efficiency of their processes and the quality of their work.
Kanban is a visual workflow management tool used by over 83% of Lean teams. Kanban helps teams identify, visualize, and manage their processes to be able to identify waste and areas for improvement. Project managers can use Lean principles and Kanban methods to enable smarter decision-making across the organization.
Deliver on value by optimizing for value delivery
The goal of Lean project management is ultimately to enable organizations and the teams within them to deliver more value to their customers. Lean does this by encouraging teams to be laser-focused on eliminating any process, step, or activity that does not directly add value to the customer – and making decisions with customer value top-of-mind.
When teams use Lean and Kanban to visualize their processes and proactively manage their work, project managers gain more understanding into how work moves through the system, and make decisions with a clear understanding of context, status, capacity, and more. They can spend their time helping teams create more value and deliver it faster.