7.2 Lean Principles

Typical problems of traditional project management

  • People tend to apply (technical, popular, etc.) solutions instead of understanding the current situation and identifying the root causes
  • Unexpected and sudden events (changes) during the project are typical and cannot be predicted:
    • New stakeholders appear
    • New requirements appear (scope expansion)
    • Funding changes
  • Root cause of failure:
    • Inappropriate application of project management methods
    • Project board, managers, teams and members focus exclusively on the deliverable(s) and miss the process improvement opportunities and the complete understanding of problems and processes that in turn generates significant risks for the project and its failure

Figure 7.1: Root cause analysis of typical project failures (5 Why)


  • Consider the three constraints of project management: time, scope, cost
  • We learned during the first chapter that if we change one constraint it will affect at least another one
  • Moreover, we have to choose: only two of the three constraint can be optimized, the third one will suffer


Applying Lean principles in project management

  • At this point can Lean principles help significantly:
    • By reducing the overall time spent on the project (e.g. with the usage of value stream mapping) the other two constraints can be freely optimized and developed without any time delay
    • By applying rapid iterative cycles (PDCA): value is generated early and continuously not only at the end; one cycle focuses on specific and tangible parts: less ongoing work results in easier and clear management
  • The most critical element from a Lean point of view beyond the triple constraint is:
    • “effective team engagement in root cause analysis and iterative problem solving”
    • Without team engagement appropriately planned projects (in terms of cost, time and scope) will fail
    • With team engagement badly planned projects have significant chance to succeed
  • Typical wasteful project management practices:
    • Excessive project administration, reporting and documentation
    • Length and unproductive status meetings
    • Never referenced, used or applied documentations
    • Weekly status reports (which are usually not read by management except if problems appear)
    • Artificial separation of functionally different groups (communication and information frozen at higher levels)
  • Traditional project management states that if you can’t define the project goals and objectives clearly then your project will fail (“plan to fail”)
    • In Lean point of view it means dealing with symptoms instead of root causes
    • The first steps should be to examine the problem and identify the root causes in an iterative manner
    • Still, a first plan is absolutely needed but it should not be too detailed and considered as a “fix” plan: it is not completely predefined but expected to change and be improved during discovery of root causes
    • Traditional project management: do the right things, do the things right
    • Lean agrees but extends it: do the right thing at the right time
  • You should create value on daily bases not only complete your daily tasks: deliver value instead of delivering features



Reinterpreting the project management stages with the help of PDCA

  • Initiation
    • Can be matched to the Plan stage of PDCA
    • It could be micro/fast preliminary PDCA cycles to initiate the project
    • Identify and validate customer needs and requirements iteratively through the whole project, not only this stage: customers can validate the understanding and refine the needs continuously
    • Involve not only the project manager and some others but the whole team to reach a common understanding
    • Meeting room is not the best place to discuss customer’s needs: perform gemba (actual/real place) walking regularly during the whole project, observing the customers/users
  • Plan
    • Corresponds to the Plan stage of PDCA
    • Significant amount of the project’s time should be invested into planning (analysis, understanding what is the value, etc.), while the others (Do, Check, Act) should share the rest.
    • Plan in short iterations with limited scope
    • Value Stream Mapping is applied at this stage
    • Set up countermeasures, baselines

  • Execute
    • Corresponds to the Do stage of PDCA
    • Continuous and proactive learning from unpredicted happenings
  • Monitor and Control
    • Monitor corresponds to the Check stage of PDCA
    • Control corresponds to the Align stage of PDCA
    • Making adjustments to baselines, countermeasures
    • Objectively evaluating progress
  • Close
    • Delivery and acceptance of the results by the user/customer
    • Traditional project management collects the lessons learned in the project
    • Lean prescribes continuous and iterative learning during the whole project and use it in the next (micro-)PDCA iteration



Figure 7.2: Lean Project Management with PDCA:
First lines show traditional steps, second lines show PDCA steps



  • Traditional project management and Lean PDCA-based project management can be easily mapped.
  • The major difference is what to do at a given step and how to do it.
    • One difference is the iteration frequency, i.e. PDCA cycles are typically more frequent than Planning-Executing-Monitoring&Controlling traditional cycles to achieve rapid learning. It is especially good for uncertain projects.
    • Another difference is in decision making: Monitor and Control is the responsibility of managers, while Check and Act is the responsibility of all affected workers, participants.