Implementing lean processes in projects: The lean methodology

lean processes

Implementing lean processes in projects is becoming progressively more popular in multiple industries. The goal of such implementation is to fix issues and lessen inefficiencies.

Lean principles were first conceived and used exclusively in the manufacturing world, as they support streamlined processes and promote high quality production.

This approach is of particular value to manufacturing goods, but it has been proven so successful that it has been introduced in other industries. Last but not least, research project managers have also benefited from it.

Still, lean project management is not the best solution for every organization.

In this article, we will take a closer look at what lean production is, what the basics of this methodology are, how to implement it, and some pros and cons of using it.

What is lean project management?

The expression “lean” does not apply exclusively to project management, but is a general mindset that focuses on lean operational management based on efficiency.

Although this concept is a mix of Western and Japanese cultures and practices, its origins can be traced back to the Toyota Motor Corporation during the post-World War II era.

Struggling with poor productivity, Toyota implemented the Toyota Production System (TPS) to effectively eliminate problematic elements from its processes, including inefficient processing, long wait times, and inventory issues.

One of the core principles of TPS was what was known as just-in-time, or JIT.

For Toyota, JIT meant

Obtain the right amount of raw materials and manufacture the right amount of products to meet customer demand.

In other words, production was strongly correlated with demand.

The adoption of TPS and JIT thus represented a “lean” approach to production, and this tactic has made Toyota one of the most successful companies in the world.

When Western manufacturers realized in the 1980s that Japan was outpacing them, these principles began to migrate westward.

The name “lean production” was created around this time, first applied to manufacturing and later to project management.

Lean project management principles. The Lean Method

Now, lean project delivery means maximizing value while minimizing waste, which involves using a minimal amount of materials, equipment, labor and space.

Specifically, lean methodology optimizes resource utilization by eliminating waste in seven areas:

  • Overproduction: Excess production is unnecessary and causes high inventory levels;
  • Inventory: excess materials increase storage costs and are rarely used;
  • Time: Backlogs in any area that lead to a general waste of time;
  • Transportation: unnecessarily moving materials from one location to another causes inefficiency;
  • Defects: quality issues can only be fixed by spending additional time, money, and resources;
  • Transportation: too many unnecessary steps in a process lengthen production time;
  • Excess processing: work that does not add value to a product or process is wasteful and increases costs unnecessarily.

Lean Project Management

The methodology that the lean approach employs to identify and remove waste in these areas can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Identify value: The concept of value needs to be rethought from the final customer’s perspective.
  • Value Stream Mapping: Analyze the process of creating the product or project to identify areas of waste, such as unnecessary steps or actions.
  • Process optimization: Develop an improvement plan to eliminate waste identified in the value stream.
  • Establish pull: This means to carry on the project or create the product based solely on the customer’s request. In other words, it is the customer who “pulls” the production.
  • Continual improvement: Regularly re-evaluate project process aiming to eliminate waste and maximize productivity and efficiency.

Lean project management implementation

Even though implementing lean processes in projects is a methodology used in organizations of all types and sizes, it works best – at least at first – with small projects and small teams because it requires strong communication.

As an organization grows, it can continue to nurture the lean mindset among new members.

Here’s an overview of the major steps involved in the implementation of lean project management:

1. Creating a corporate culture

The classic top-down approach doesn’t fit the lean project management philosophy.

Although management bears full responsibility for products, processes and business requirements, it is also important that everyone feels an ownership, and therefore a sense of equality, when it comes to improving the way an organization works.

Establishing a standard of openness and transparency helps create an environment where everyone is actively supported in identifying problems and testing solutions.

lean processes in projects

2. Having a well-trained team

There is no lean management model that works for every single project; the implementation of the principles may not look exactly the same in every case.

That’s why it’s important to create a well-trained team that possesses a strong understanding of the values of lean project management and is capable of keeping everyone focused.

One way to increase the team’s knowledge of this methodology is to provide in-house training sessions that shed light on the procedures and methods related to lean principles.

 3. Make lean improvements part of the corporate culture

There should be a culture of improvement which permeates throughout the organization, encouraging and enabling teams to strive for continuous improvement everywhere.

Team members should be able to evaluate a process and take the necessary actions to make improvements.

Sticking with lean requires continuous focus.

Lean project management benefits

The implementation of lean project management is a long-term proposition that should ultimately change an organization’s culture for the better.

Lean project management benefits include:

  • Streamlined processes: Continuously fine-tuning your workflow means getting rid of unnecessary tasks, and the end result is a simpler, easier-to-manage process.
  • High-quality output: By getting rid of worthless activities, the team can focus more on activities that bring better quality and fewer errors to the output.
  • Dedicated employees: Employees who spend time on significant work have higher motivation. Also, employees who feel they are working together on an equal footing naturally take more initiative and are more dedicated to quality production.
  • Smarter processes: Lean enables employees to work on the right tasks at the right time.
  • More value for the customer: Focusing more on value-added work naturally produces a better product.

Lean project management challenges

When properly done, lean can offer all of the benefits mentioned above, but many organizations struggle to implement lean project management over the long term.

The main problems that can be found are:

  • Lack of time. Lean involves forward planning and time. Mapping key product flows, creating improvement plans, running daily meetings to discuss completed and pending work, and identifying problems are just a few of the tasks that need to be undertaken regularly to maintain flow. Perceived as interfering with normal work activities, these tasks often get overlooked as time goes on, making it impossible to apply a lean methodology.
  • Lack of strategy. Some companies focus so much on lean production that they lose touch with their overall strategic plan. To get the most out of this methodology, you need to intentionally implement its principles to existing business goals and not neglect them.
  • Insufficient buy-in. Lean methodology is considered a radical way of thinking that requires complete consensus from teams. It takes a lot of effort to change people’s behaviors and incentivize them to work more independently. If you don’t have enough time to train people on the new way of working and how everyone will benefit, it is unlikely that they will agree. To help gain consensus, it is important to invest in training programs that teach people about lean and improve their communication skills.

No project management methodology is perfect, which is why many organizations employ some mix of methodologies.

Lean methodology, given its radical nature, may not be suitable for everyone, but its core principle – minimizing waste while maximizing value – can still be applied to some extent even if you are using a different project framework.

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