A Guide on How to Use Lean Project Management

For decades, lean (or LEAN) management techniques have been taught in business schools and used by industry, government, and nonprofit organizations across the globe. It's been credited with saving companies millions, significantly improving organizational productivity, and fostering innovative processes and products. What is lean management, and how can its tools and techniques help your organization become more successful.

What Is Lean Project Management?

Lean project management is a collection of tools designed to optimize production. These techniques are derived from an array of innovative manufacturing production techniques that were popularized in the Fifties. Lean is based on the business philosophy that businesses should primarily focus on enhancing customer value. Thus, all businesses should be organized to maximize value, whether that means implementing specific technologies or restructuring departments. LEAN tools and techniques are designed to identify and eliminate processes and structures that do not create customer value, thus creating a more streamlined (or lean) organization.

The 1996 book Lean Thinking, which helped popularize this philosophy, identified five primary lean principles:

How CPM project management works
  • Specify a value in the eyes of the customer. Here, value means providing the customer the right product at the right time and price.
  • Identify the value stream for each product. The value stream refers to the totality of actions needed to bring value to the customer.
  • Make value flow by eliminating waste. At this stage, managers must maximize the value flowing to the customer by eliminating any extraneous or redundant processes.
  • Let the customer pull the flow. Managers practicing lean should present the value when asked, not before.
  • Continuously improve in the pursuit of perfection. No matter how much waste has been identified and eliminated, managers should constantly seek out more to eliminate.

How Lean Project Management Works

Lean concepts can be used to manage projects more effectively. In a lean-driven project, a manager will:

  • Identify the value of the project to the customer. The value may include deliverables, customer needs and requirements, and the terms at which they will accept the deliverable. The value should come from the customer, based on the customer's honest feedback to the company.
  • Map out the value stream. The project manager should outline the cross-departmental process to create the customer's identified value, even if they have no final say on how departments may engage with the project.
  • Identify waste in the process of creating the value stream. As they develop a diagram of the value stream, they should create a list of waste in the production process. Some may stem from internal structural factors, such as siloed departments. Others may stem from resource deficits, such as the use of multiple computer systems that perform the same function.
  • Eliminate identified waste and redundancies. The project manager will identify methods to eliminate redundancies, then draw a new map of the process
  • Begin project-related activities. After eliminating the waste and refining the diagram, the project manager is ready to schedule and assign tasks based solely on value stream-related activities.
  • Identify new waste and redundancies. As the project continues, the project manager must periodically reassess the scope of activities underway to identify additional waste that may have developed, stemming from new variables and dynamics, scope creep and other factors.

To use lean project management effectively, you'll need to map out your processes from stem to stern. Typically, project managers use Control Diagrams, which help them map out the flow of a specific process over time, and Pareto Charts, reverse-ordered bar charts that help them easily identify the most frequently occurring problems. Scatter Diagrams, which show the relationship between two variables, are also common, as are Histograms (frequency charts) and Run Charts (simple graphs depicting trend changes over time).


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