Lean project management: definition, principles and tips

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 13 May 2022

Lean methodology project management is a set of tools and principles that focuses on waste reduction and the increase of product quality during project execution. It's one of the various project management models that healthcare, technology and education industries use to carry out daily tasks. Learning about this management method can help project managers oversee operations more effectively. In this article, we discuss lean project management, its principles and some tips for maximising its efficiency.

What is lean project management?

Lean project management is a methodology that many healthcare, education and technology industries use to simultaneously reduce waste and ensure quality products. The methodology relies on maximising resources and eliminating waste at all levels of project management. Like traditional methods, many other project management models emphasise business gains and profits regardless of customer demands. Also, some models can disregard the amount of waste that the production process generates as long as the company makes a profit.

In lean project management, the manager establishes quality assurance and prioritises customer demand at all times. Project management methodology dates back to the 1940s, and one of the forerunners in implementing its principles was the Toyota automobile manufacturing company. Toyota took a massive risk in identifying value from the customer's perspective. They wanted to produce cars that solved people's problems. Eventually, this methodology helped to optimise their working processes. Since the inception of the lean project management method, many industries across various sectors have successfully adopted its principles.

Related: Different types of project management methodologies

Principles and application of lean project management

The following are some of the principles of lean project management and their applications:

1. Value identification

Customers set the rules in lean project management. The first principle of this methodology focuses on delivering things to solve customer problems rather than producing to meet customer demands. For instance, in an automobile company, a customer might request a fast car, but the company builds a fast vehicle that also has good fuel economy. This way, the company alleviates the customer's pain point of the fuel expenses associated with a fast car.

When a business gathers a customer's requirements, objectives and deliverables, it channels its energy into meeting their specific demands and maintaining a good relationship with the customer until the end of the project. The project managers also deem distractions or steps not addressing concerns or contributing to the project's success as wasteful. As the project progresses, the managers maintain close contact with the customer to rectify specific concerns before generating waste. In essence, the first principle ensures that waste reduction is possible through identifying value from customer feedback.

Related: 13 milestones in project management (with definitions)

2. Mapping value stream

After spelling out the project requirements and objectives from the customer's viewpoint, the next step in lean project management is to map the value stream. This is when the project manager draws a map that shows the project's phases, processes and flaws. The map also clarifies the resources that the project requires, eliminating any unproductive steps. This process can assist the manager in breaking down the project's structure and dividing it into separate tasks if necessary.

Value-stream mapping also shows the organisation where it can generate value in the project. In addition, the manager can use this map to stay focused and cut down unnecessary waste as the project progresses. The result is a robust project methodology that ensures adequate and prompt delivery time while not compromising on quality. Several tools can help in the value-map streaming step. These tools help managers to discern what matters most in a project and correct flaws as necessary.

Related: Project scope: definition, importance and how to develop it

3. Continuous workflow creation

After mapping out how to create value, the next phase is creating a continuous workflow. This principle ensures that the project runs smoothly without blockages, hindrances or time wastage. Achieving this requires the manager to eliminate any process or activity that could lead to waste. In a typical lean project, waste can come in many forms and quantities. For example, an activity that consumes value but doesn't add to the project's success counts as waste, such as buying excess raw materials that the project won't use.

The time spent waiting for an item's delivery after commencing a project is another form of waste. Other types of waste can stem from incorrect data collection, overproduction, unnecessary motion or transportation. Managers can often eliminate these wastes by ensuring that the project adheres to the first two principles of lean project management. Waste elimination ensures that the project does not face bottlenecks and hindrances that could delay continuous workflow and efficient production. Therefore, whenever a project stalls for any reason, the project manager queries all factors that might hinder continuous workflow.

4. Pull system creation

After establishing continuous workflow, it's important that the manager designs a system to ensure that no activity begins or enters the project process before it's necessary. All activities entering the production process only do so when required. This process helps eliminate waste and ensure that customer demand is the priority. Another part of pull system creation focuses on giving people tasks only when they can do them so that staff do not become overwhelmed with too many tasks at once. The point of pull system creation is to ensure that the manager can optimise processes and teams during production.

Specific tools can help to ensure people follow the philosophy of pull system creation. One tool is to have a limit for all works in progress. This method allows teams to focus on one task at a time, only moving on when they finish the current task. This helps to ensure that nobody introduces unnecessary processes that could disturb the team's focus. In essence, pull system creation limits interruptions and improves waste reduction.

5. Improvement

Lean project management does not mean that projects never contain flaws or interruptions, but this method tries to limit hindrances through a set of principles. Since the methodology acknowledges the impossibility of perfection in a project, this last principle emphasises the need for continuous improvement as the project progresses. It's crucial for the manager to continually look for potential areas for improvement at every project stage. This strategy ensures optimal performance and utilisation of human and non-human resources.

6. Lean project management tools

Utilising lean project management principles is a process that managers can't establish instantly. The principles require continuous effort and the use of tools that can ease the process. An example of such a tool is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. This cycle emphasises a staged method of improving operations and eliminating incorrect approaches in a project. It starts with adequate planning of resources and requirements. After that, the manager moves to the next cycle stage, analysing and acting on project requirements. Next is the testing stage, when the manager explores whether the project can solve customer challenges.

The last step is rolling out the product after analysing any flaws and making appropriate changes. Another tool that managers can use to implement the lean project management method is a technique that can help the team visualise the value map. For example, pull system creation is an aspect of the lean project principles that can benefit from improvisations like work-in-progress limits. The manager can attach this limit to every aspect of the project's process where every team member can see it and take notes.

Related: What are project management tools (with 15 examples)

Lean project management tips

Working on a lean project comes with some challenges that could affect efficiency, as lean projects are multidisciplinary and utilise various human and non-human resources. By using specific tips, every manager can effectively use lean principles. First, it's important for a manager to keep every part of the project simple. If the project can avoid complicated processes, there's a greater chance of decreased waste and increased efficiency. Second, a good team relationship allows the manager to use staff as monitoring tools to maintain a continuous workflow.

Having an efficient and coherent team also helps the manager generate ideas and celebrate progress with every member as the project progresses. It's imperative that the manager communicates the project's goal to every organisation member. Reducing waste is usually achievable if the team knows enough about the project and its deliverables.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.