Trimming the waste out of Project Management

Have you experienced waste and inefficiencies when managing or participating on projects? If you have, you may have also wondered how to trim that project waste.

So, what’s the quickest way to shorten project duration, reduce quality defects and boost productivity levels? Go lean, says Lawrence Leach, PMP.

The founder of the Advanced Projects Institute, Boise, Idaho, USA, and the author of Lean Project Management: Eight Principles For Success [Booksurge Publishing, 2006], Mr. Leach has spent more than 30 years streamlining projects for both private and government entities. Taking a page from lean manufacturing – a strategy that eliminates waste and evens out workflow in production chains – lean project management helps projects run smoother by coordinating the human resources involved.

He says that many organizations start projects without considering whether they can actually complete them. With lean management, companies look at how they assign tasks, if they’re being clear about the priority of the tasks, and if they have everything they need to get the project done.

Lean Basics

For project managers looking to take the lean approach, Mr. Leach says the process begins by checking for the basics. Before talking lean at all, companies need to have a work breakdown structure that details each task and who’s doing it.

Teams also need a schedule that identifies all human and physical resources necessary for each task and when handoffs between groups should occur.

Lean project management emphasizes the importance of focusing schedules on hand-offs from one resource to another, rather than on dates for individual tasks. Mr. Leach adds that companies that focus on task dates create because people who finish the task early don’t pass it on.

After there’s a reasonable schedule, you can begin trimming waste, Mr. Leach says. Look at each worker contributing to the project and create a list of prioritized tasks that each person needs to accomplish.

And since many projects involve multiple workers contributing to different parts of the project at different times, Mr. Leach recommends using a computerized system to record the start and completion date of each task and to automatically generate a daily updated list of priorities.

Lean Managers

Once each worker knows what he or she is supposed to be doing, it’s up to management to clear out all other distractions, giving workers the focus they need to get the project completed on time. Convincing management to change their behavior, from multi-tasking on several projects to attacking one project at a time, will make lean project management successful, Mr. Leach notes.

“Sometimes managers argue that if workers have five tasks, they can be more efficient, but that’s a false efficiency,” Mr. Leach says. “Every time people move from one task to another, it causes errors and delays.”

Lean project management can be effective because it helps tighten up on those production delays by focusing workers on how they can most effectively contribute to completing a single project. When implemented correctly, Mr. Leach says that the lean method increases productivity on average 100 percent, reduces project duration an average of 30 percent, and reduces quality defects an average of 50 percent.

Despite the strategy’s dramatic results, Mr. Leach warns lean managers to expect flack from critics both inside and outside the organization who argue that focusing on one project at a time significantly slows the production chain. “About 10 percent to 30 percent of your workforce is only going to go along with it because they have no other choice,” he warns. “Part of being a successful lean manager is knowing how to deal with that.”

To quell the voice of dissent, Mr. Leach advises lean managers to focus on generating and promoting positive short-term results. The crowd will soon follow.

Thankfully, lean managers won’t have to wait long to get impressive results. Mr. Leach says to expect to see progress within a few months, sometimes weeks, of implementation.

I have seen the huge benefits that lean manufacturing brought to the factory floor, at my company. We are in the process of translating the lean management principles into the transactional and office space, including project management. I am excited to apply those principles and generate the benefits.

So, what do you think? Do you see the value in applying lean principles for project management?


5 thoughts on “Trimming the waste out of Project Management

  1. There are lots of good tips that you state on your article on how to proceed into a lean project management. I believe the Lean project management would improve both the effectiveness and efficiency of project with good planning, organizing, motivating, directing, and controlling. Project management is defined as a process, which contains a series of activities from start to finish. We can use value stream mapping to ensure the maximum effectiveness by defining the project requirements in terms of all factors that will influence the project and managing the project process to ensure efficient performance by focus on things that can bring value and eliminate waste.

  2. I absolutely do think that lean principles can be applied to project management. The project manager could manage the project schedule based on these principles, and overall gain efficiencies in the project. I also think that Lean Six Sigma DMAIC methodologies can be applied to project management. For instance, the project manager, could start with defining, measuring, and analyzing the project, then move on to improving and controlling. Overall, the project manager would be applying lean principles, and this could result in great efficiencies by elimination of waste.

  3. Excellent article!
    Lean project management seems to be a great idea and a great goal but there are just too many challenges to that.
    I see the main issue with Lean Project Management as the fact that projects are unique so the formula applied to one successful project may or may not work for another project and that is what makes projects unique and interesting. Be that the fact that the project team is not exactly the same, which the deliverables may not be exactly the same, the timing is definitely different and many other variables can influence the outcome of a project.
    The biggest threat to a successful project is the false impression from those working on the pre-project phase; budgeting, defining scope and scheduling it, to count on a leaner and more efficient project, similar to a previous project with many similarities but not exactly the same as the previous one used as reference. If the project manager gets assigned to a project that has unrealistic budget, schedule or scope, it will be very difficult to transform it into a successful project, but miracles could happen!

  4. This is a great article. I think it puts into perspective some of the cliches we have been brainwashed with for many years as employees. For the most part, employers are looking for individuals who are great multitaskers. It’s being one of the major attributes to put on our resumes. However, this article defeats that claim and tells us that multitasking could actually make projects less efficient, and that project managers should only assign one project at a time. This would be great in a perfect world but I’m thinking back at my recent projects and it occurs to me that many times its inevitable for managers to assign multiplemprojectsnsimultaneously. Each person assigned to a project will not be working on all aspects of it. Therefore if there is only one project assigned at a time, employed will encounter significant wasted time, waiting for other departments to complete their work before it arrives back to you. In addition, for long term projects that span over multiple months, employees get bored with monotonous tasks and tend to get burned out with that particular project. Therefore, I think it’s more effective to have multiple projects spanning simultaneously in mitigate these issues.
    On the other hand, I think lean management would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of project progression if it focused more on hand-offs rather that task completion schedules. We have seen many times at my organization that people sit on information for various reasons. For example, during our financial review with the regional managers last week, it became evident that one department was holding information for 5 months because it was incomplete due to network issues. It became evident that even though the information was incomplete, it could have been transferred to our department for analysis in its current format. Had we had this information months ago, we could have incorporated various initiatives to improve the operations for those particular metrics five months ago, dealing with the missing information as it becomes available from the administration later. This could have mitigated various issues that are now prevalent.

  5. Thank you for the interesting article. I think small projects which usually involve small number of people versus a big project, is harder to finish. This is due to the fact that usually there are multiple small projects in hand and switching between different tasks and/or projects is one of the main causes of waste of time as well as reducing efficiency. I totally agree that Lean approach seems to be very interesting as it brings good project management practices, however it has not addressed the way these concepts can be put in place considering the project scale. Nowadays, I believe there is fewer businesses that works on one or two big projects only.
    Another interesting aspect that lean approach is promoting is focusing on one task and gets it done right and quick, I assume this all depends on the management view and strategic decision at the end. The question here, as employees; can we make use of Lean concepts without the full support of our management?

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