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How To Implement Lean Project Management

by: John Coburn
How To Implement Lean Project Management
Simplify. Scale. Succeed.

Our previous post, The Five Principles of Lean, attempted to demystify Lean. It tried to reclaim a concept that has been wrapped in layers of complexity and jargon. 

We ultimately learned that Lean means producing something with common sense. 

But how can we implement the principles of Lean in project management? What are some specific actions that would help eliminate waste and make project management more efficient? 

In this post, we’ll discuss such specific actions. These are not big initiatives but simple changes that you can make in your project management practices that will move your team closer to a Lean mindset. 

1. Eliminate status update meetings (wherever possible)


It’s an open secret that people hate meetings at work. But the status update meetings are the worst of the lot. 60% of employees feel that preparing for status meetings takes longer than the meeting itself. 

Meetings are productive when they have a fixed action-oriented agenda. There’s almost always a better way to have status updates than in-person meetings. Especially now, with the emergence of online collaboration tools. Team collaboration tools show project progress in real-time and make it easy for project members to share task updates. Even if you don’t use such a tool, a simple email is still a better way to update project status than a meeting. 

Lean stresses on waste reduction.

Eliminating unnecessary status update meetings has an immediate impact on it. Not only does it save countless working hours, but it also motivates your team. 

Overview & alignment meetings can be useful when conducted sparingly. It’s important to ask yourself, “Does a recent update, news, etc warrant a lengthy meeting?”

Remember – meetings cost. Multiply the attendees’ salaries against how many hours you’re keeping them for the meeting and the time they spend preparing.

Does the value gained from the meeting outweigh the cost? Usually not.

2. Use a Kanban based workflow

One of the core principles of Lean is to Establish Pull, which means reducing work in progress. Productivity doesn’t mean doing more things, but the right things better. One time-tested approach to reduce work-in-progress is to increase the transparency of workflow. This reduces expensive stockpile by ensuring that team members are aware of the project status at every step. 

The most popular tool to create transparent workflows is Kanban. Born in the manufacturing segment, adopted by IT, and now practiced across all industries, Kanban is arguably the most popular project management methodology. 

Technology has made Kanban scalable.  By using visual task management tools,  you can use Kanban even for projects with thousands of members. Virtual Kanban boards show what tasks are in the backlog, which are the top priorities, and what’s a “work-in-progress.” They also allow project members to communicate and align their priorities. 

Learn more about using Kanban for project management. 

3. Involve your team in identifying waste


Lean stresses identifying the value stream, i.e., understand which project activities play a critical role in its success. Usually, managers looking to implement lean project management classify project activities into 3 categories – Important, Helpful, and Useless. The goal is to eliminate useless activities and reduce helpful activities without compromising on important tasks. 

Understanding what should and shouldn’t be considered wasteful isn’t as easy as it sounds. To make more informed decisions, involve your project team in the process. Ask them what tasks/activities in the project they consider wasteful? This collaborative approach is helpful because it will reveal if a seemingly redundant task adds value to another project member. Or if there are certain activities that are unanimously considered useless. 

Once the team identifies wasteful activities, evaluate if eliminating them would have any bearing on the project. Maybe you’ll have to make a few procedural tweaks to compensate for them. 

4. Prioritize optimization

A popular misconception about Lean is that it’s a process you introduce to your team, and Voila! You are a Lean certified organization. 

As Mark Crawford mentions in his post, Lean’s goal is not perfection (which is unattainable) but its pursuit. It’s a state of mind.

A lean way to manage projects requires periodic and frequent optimization. Often, project members only take a deeper look into their PM practices when things go wrong. For example, if a project exceeds the intended delivery date, the project manager tries to identify improvement areas. Lean project management requires continuous evaluation of PM practices, regardless of the project outcome. 

Many project management methodologies, especially the Agile ones, incorporate continuous optimization into their structure itself. For example, Scrum teams do a sprint retrospective at the end of each sprint to discuss what can be done better, regardless of the sprint outcome. You don’t have to follow an Agile methodology to implement Lean project management, but it will be important to create a structure that allows for continuous improvement. 

5. Plan for changing requirements. 


No project moves in isolation from external factors. These can be ad-hoc requirements from stakeholders, conflicting priorities, changes in the team, etc. Such unforeseen factors create additional work and can derail your team’s plan to go Lean if left unchecked. 

As the project manager, you’ll be responsible for managing stakeholders’ expectations and mitigating noise around the project. It’s about maintaining a balance between making adjustments to priorities and shielding the team from noise. 

On the surface, it may seem that Lean project management requires fixed project requirements. While that is ideal, it is seldom the case in today’s dynamic world. Agile methodologies help with implementing Lean PM practices in projects where stakeholder requirements change frequently.

6. Build a culture of autonomy and accountability

A lot of wasteful activities in project management are a result of bureaucratic processes designed to exercise control. Such processes are a residue of the carrot-stick manufacturing mentality of the industrial age. One way to become Lean in this regard is to give more autonomy to the project members and transform a project manager’s role into a mentor rather than a control freak. 

This is precisely what the Scrum teams do. A Scrum Master acts more as a facilitator of Scrum practices than a traditional project manager. They don’t spoon feed project members their to-dos. Project members are expected to understand the backlog and prioritize on their own. 

However, a culture of autonomy needs a culture of accountability to work well. You should create a safety net in your team so that people aren’t penalized for acknowledging their mistakes. Some teams interpret this to mean that mistakes should have no consequences for people. This is incorrect.  

People shouldn’t be punished for owning up to mistakes. However, they should be evaluated on how they learn from them. Otherwise, it becomes hard to sustain a Lean approach to managing projects. 

Learn more about building a culture of accountability

If you are looking for a project management tool that supports Lean methodologies, give Taskworld a shot. Sign up for free today.

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