An illustration of a person holding a magnifying glass looking at speech bubbles representing lean project management.
What is Lean Project Management?
An illustration of a person holding a magnifying glass looking at speech bubbles representing lean project management.

What is Lean Project Management?

The dream for project managers is efficiency and output of value, which is why the concept of lean project management — which essentially “trims the fat” of unnecessary work —- should be every project manager’s north star. Too often teams miss deadlines, exceed budgets and drain resources. While it might seem like there was no other way, a shift in mindset toward the lean project management mentality might just do the trick to keep your team on track for their next project. 

Let’s take a detailed look and get you all set up to apply the concept to your team in no time.  

What is lean project management?

It all began with Japanese car company Toyota’s post-war operational model called “The Toyota Production System”, today referred to as lean manufacturing. Its main principle is simple:  maximize value while reducing waste. This can be applied to all business processes such as resources, time, and overhead in order to increase quality while reducing costs, scope creep, lead time, and project defects. 

Lean project management is essentially the application of these principles to modern teams in order to reap the same benefits: less waste and more value! What does it mean to be lean? According to the Project Management Institute, it means “to provide what is needed, when it is needed, with the minimum amount of materials, equipment, labor, and space.”

Sounds ideal doesn’t it? And when project managers are able to put lean project management into action, you can expect some lofty benefits.

6 benefits of lean project management 

  1. Faster project turnaround
  2. Better quality work
  3. Decreased overall costs
  4. More engaged and motivated teams 
  5. Improved team productivity and efficiency
  6. Increased customer satisfaction

But how do you implement the theory? Let’s look into some of the key principles and how to make them work for you. 

The key principles of lean project management

1. Identify the value for your customer 

First, you need to understand the value of your product or service in the eyes of your customer. That means that really knowing your audience is probably the most important element of any project’s success. Now, your customer can be an external customer or an internal stakeholder. Once you determine who the product is intended for, you can determine how to make it the most valuable to them. Ultimately to bring value, you want to solve problems and meet needs.

2. Map the value stream 

Value stream mapping (VSM) is a visual tool project managers can use that involves mapping out two things against each other: your current and ideal workflows from the beginning to the end of your project. Looking at both diagrams, you’ll be able to pinpoint waste across each phase and find the flaws in your project’s life cycle. Don’t skip this step! It’s crucial for lean project management.

Some of the many types of waste to look out for: 

  • Overproduction: In the software game this can include things like unnecessary features that detract from the product’s value and waste storage and materials. 
  • Waiting: Waste incurred from delayed timelines where time is literally wasted. 
  • Over-processing: Budget blown on unnecessary tools or doing work that was not necessary. 
  • Fragmented teams: Look out for how you structure your contributors on projects to avoid miscommunication and redundancies. 
  • Defects: Things that need to be repaired or reworked. 

3. Eliminate waste to create value 

Now’s the time to remove the waste you surfaced in the previous phase. How? Break it all down in a bit more detail in order to problem solve proactively. For example, if you have an area where timelines will be delayed due to dependencies on external stakeholders, rejig your plan to avoid this waste. Remove these types of pain points at every phase and be sure to communicate your final visual mapping to your team so everyone’s in the loop on the project plan and can offer feedback. 

4. Let the value flow based on the customer’s demand 

This principle of lean project management is about delivering value; not more than your customer is expecting, and not less either. This “just in time” system comes from the manufacturing industry, where it helps factories meet customer demands at the right moment in time to help reduce inventory and save on resources. On software teams, it’s a way to help keep things moving through the project life cycle efficiently, ensuring that as one thing is done it flags the next thing to start. For example, finishing work on a specific feature might trigger a review process.

5. Aim for continuous improvement 

The idea here is to reassess the project process often to help eliminate any unwanted waste that comes up along the way, as changes and shifts in your plan are always sure to crop up. 

Lean project management vs. agile

Lean project management is an agile methodology, but there are differences. While lean project management is born from the manufacturing sector, the agile methodology is most commonly applied to software development. Lean project management is a system focused on improving long-term processes in an organization to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of each employee’s contribution to the process. Agile on the other hand focuses more on how projects are executed in smaller parts. The goal of agile is to help teams make better decisions, whereas the lean methodology aims to help reduce waste including time and resources, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality and value of output for the client. 

The truth is, they work really well when applied together and should rarely compete, especially since both prioritize continuous improvement. 

Lean into lean project management 

Take a page from the manufacturing industry’s wildly successful book and work towards implementing a lean mindset on your team. To deliver the best value to your client and get the most out of your team’s time and resources, lean project management is something to keep on your radar. Remember that it’s an iterative process so you’ll need to reassess and recalibrate as you go, keeping the continuous improvement mentality top of mind. When it comes to lean project management, it’s a marathon, not a race.