Going with the Flow – The Lean Approach to Successful Project Management

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Continuing on from the first post in our ‘How ‘Lean’ is Changing the World’ series, this week we’re exploring the origins of the Lean Methodology and how Lean thinking can be applied to project management in every industry.

‘Lean Principles’ have moved off the factory floor and evolved into an effective tool for project managers to streamline the project cycle from the top down.

What we think of as the ‘Lean’ approach to business has its roots in the manufacturing process. The earliest recording of ‘Lean’ in action was in the 1780’s with the French Army Ordnance who pioneered the concept of interchangeable parts with the mass production of separate parts for their muskets. However, it wasn’t until 1908, when Henry Ford introduced the standard gauging system, that rapid leaps forward were made. Ford’s production model was revolutionized by Kiichiro Toyoda in 1930 when he developed the Toyota Production System (TPS).

The major difference between Ford’s production model and TPS was the shift in focus from individual machines and their operation, to how production flowed across each machine throughout the entire process. By making adjustments, including right-sizing machines for volume, lining them up in process sequence, pioneering small steps to produce small amounts of different part numbers and implementing excellent communication at every handoff, Toyota was able to lower costs, increase variety and improve delivery speed and quality. Over the following decades this system, with various refinements, was adopted by many other Japanese organizations.

In the 80’s the world started to take notice of TPS and General Motors, among others, recognized the superiority of the system. In 1987 an MIT researcher coined the term ‘Lean’ to describe Toyota’s blend of production, product development, supplier collaboration, customer support, quality and management methods. By the mid 90’s the Lean approach was released from the production floor and being adopted by companies across the globe.

It was James Womack and Daniel Jones who defined the 5 key principles of the Lean methodology:

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[Image from Lean.org]

‘Identify Value’ is the first step. It’s incredibly important as it addresses the question of whether or not the project should be undertaken; does it add value to the customer? And, will it deliver value the business? ‘Map the Value Stream’ is fairly self-explanatory; figure out what steps need to be taken and eliminate those that don’t. Creating flow means mapping out those steps so that the product flows efficiently toward the customer at each step. ‘Establish Pull’ refers to the act of involving the customer in the process and allowing them to decide what is or isn’t valuable. Finally, use the customer input to iterate to ‘Seek Perfection’. So, that’s the methodology in a nutshell. Evidence shows it to be incredibly successful at ‘eliminating waste’ in terms of production, but it’s also a philosophy that can be applied to managing people to produce an enjoyable and efficient work environment.

Practicing Lean Project Management

It’s a common misconception that when people think of project managers, they think project managers manage projects. They don’t; they manage people. Applying the ‘Lean’ methodology to project management to teams of people rather than products may seem a little inhumane but in actuality it has been shown to empower employees. Joe Taylor Jr. writes that “the difference between a modern practitioner of lean project management and early project planners is a focus on the well-being of every member of the team.”Lean Project Management eliminates waste (in terms of time and resource – NOT people) by adhering to the same basic principles laid out by Jones and Womack, but it also draws on the values inherent in lean methodology to improve professional development. This is how the Lean Methodology can be applied to project management:

Identify Value – carefully break down projects to determine what elements are extraneous and can be eliminated.

Map the Value Stream – look at teams and carefully map out the entire project to see what teams are essential to the project at which time to improve handovers and prevent bottlenecks.

Create Flow – break down projects into small manageable tasks (similar to Agile methodology). Measure everything and watch to see how teams or individuals perform best in certain situations to know how to assign tasks that play to their strengths.

Establish Pull – don’t commit to one course of action until project sponsors have agreed to a finite list of desired outcomes: Decide late, deliver fast.

Seek Perfection – empower teams with decision making responsibilities and accountability. Promote the idea of continual improvement by communicating clearly what the team has learned from a failed project.

By following this holistic approach to the Lean methodology and creating a seamless flow, project managers will not only be able ‘cut the crap’ that slows projects down and creates a stressful, unproductive work environment, they will also be able to positively impact their business and the lives of everyone they work with.

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