Lean Project Management

Written By: Bill Hardy

TL/DR: Lean project management can help an organization bring schedules and budgets back in line — and keep them in line.


Is money and time important for your organization? Do you have initiatives and operations that you struggle to keep in line?

Lean Project Management might be the answer you seek. While it is not a magic wand, applying Lean principles can help your organization reap the same kinds of benefits in managing initiatives that Lean has achieved for manufacturing: maximizing value and minimizing waste.

Whatever methodologies your organization uses — agile, waterfall, etc. — Lean Project Management can help you. Proper and effective use of Lean techniques will reduce waste in your projects, strengthen customer satisfaction, and improve cost-effectiveness and profit margins.

Lean requires a disciplined approach to examining how all activities are handled throughout a project’s entire lifecycle. Too frequently, people believe that the ways they have done things in the past are permanently the best ways. Making improvements requires thorough and candid process analysis to clarify exactly how each process is handled and identify inefficiencies and waste. Properly understanding each process step will highlight waste, identifying process steps and methods which do not add value, but which have become accepted and unquestioned parts of the process.

What is Lean?

Lean is not just a tool set or a method for improvement. Lean is a business philosophy. From its origins in the Toyota Production System, Lean has become a globally recognized methodology for organizational improvement. Lean was originally used primarily for improving manufacturing processes. Over the years, Lean has found extensive usage in many other industries and across far broader disciplines.

The core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Lean means using fewer resources to create more value for customers. The result is reduction of cost and effort as well as increased quality.

A Lean organization understands customer value and focuses key processes to continuously increase this value. Lean emphasizes continuous improvement, working towards the ideal goal of increasing value to the customer through an ever-improving value creation process that ultimately has zero waste.

Lean thinking changes management’s focus away from optimizing separate technologies, assets, and vertical departments, and onto optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams which flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to reach customers quickly and effectively.

Rather than targeting isolated points, the result of Lean’s elimination of waste and improvement of operations across entire value streams is to processes that require less capital, less time, less space, and less human effort to make products and services at lower costs and with fewer defects, compared with traditional business systems. Lean thinking enables organizations to respond to changing customer needs and preferences with high quality, low cost, and fast throughput times. Importantly for information services and systems, information management becomes simpler and more accurate.

Implemented and led properly, Lean allows highly skilled and knowledgeable people to spend more time innovating, improving operations, and delivering new features and better customer value, while enabling the organization to scale quickly.

Lean Thinking

To be Lean is to provide what is needed, when it is needed, using the minimum amount of processing, effort, equipment, materials, and space. Lean has five core principles:

1. Identify value from the customer’s perspective. This is a product, service, or capability provided at the right time at an appropriate price. In other words, what problem are we trying to solve for the customer? Customers can be external to the organization, or they can include concepts such as other systems, regulatory compliance, or infrastructure stability. Price can include money, effort, appropriateness, ease of use, etc.

Value stream mapping. This is mapping the workflow of the organization. It includes all current actions and people involved in delivering the product to the customer, from concept to launch and everything in between. Doing this helps to identify what parts of the process do and do not add value. A future-state map is then created to show how the process should operate.
Sample value stream mapping exercise:

1. Create continuous workflow and eliminate waste. This phase is about keeping each team’s work flowing smoothly, removing bottlenecks and interruptions, and eliminating waste. This is done in part by analyzing value streams and categorizing work and steps as: Value-Added Work — essential to the product or service; Value-Enabling Work, — cannot be eliminated immediately but possibly in the future; and Non-Value-Added Work — can usually be eliminated quickly, independent of other improvements. Lean identifies seven types of waste: Inventory, Waiting, Defects, Overproduction, Motion, Transportation, Over-processing (including double work).

2. Establish pull. Stable workflows enable teams to deliver work tasks faster with less effort. In a pull system, work is only pulled when there is a demand for it. This lets an organization optimize capacity and deliver when there is an actual need. It also reduces work in progress and project carryover. Instead of work being pushed to a person and having it pile up, people pull work when they have capacity. This is much like going to a restaurant and ordering a custom pizza. The chef bakes the pizzas when they are ordered. Baking without the demand would generate waste.

3. Continuous improvement. The first four principles establish the Lean system. The final principle is to continuously seek to improve each process. This is possibly the most important principle and should be done in conjunction with the others. While there may be occasional giant steps forward, most improvements are incremental. The important thing is to develop a culture of continuous improvement and transform into a continuous learning organization.

Lean Management Tools

Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)

Sometimes called the Deming Cycle, the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle is a crucial tool in Lean.

PDCA is an effective way to establish a culture of solutions testing on a small scale, minimizing potential rework, effectively meeting requirements, increasing customer satisfaction, increasing quality, and supporting a mindset of continuous improvement.


Kanban is a widely used workflow management method that helps teams and organizations to visualize work, improve workflows, and increase efficiency.

Central to Kanban is the visualization of work. Kanban boards can centralize communication, create transparent work environments with fewer interruptions, and help show hidden work. Kanban boards can become real-time status reporting tools to show what is happening with a project, providing much information with few questions. Each team member can better understand the work state and project status. Using Kanban, bottlenecks can automatically unhide themselves.

Other Lean Tools

Lean 5S is a tool originally consisting of five Japanese words, adapted into English as follows: Sort, Set in order, Shine (clean), Standardize, Sustain. 5S exercises can be particularly beneficial for individuals and for teams who share physical or virtual workspaces.

Gemba Walk consists of a checklist that can help improve project processes and eliminate roadblocks.

Kaizen and Kairyo represent the combination of continuous self-development efforts ona personal level and continuous improvement efforts on team and organization levels, and can result in performance and effectiveness improvements.


Lean Project Management requires you to see your project as a value stream. It focuses on value delivery from the customer’s perspective, reducing project waste to increase efficiency and continuously improve process. More than distinguishing between project phases, Lean Project Management focuses on following the five core principles of Lean management cyclically. Eliminating project waste and creating a pull system is central to increasing project efficiency. One of the main goals is to create a stable workflow, eliminate interruptions, and increase predictability. Selecting from and combining tools such as PDCA, Kanban, and Gemba can support the transition from traditional to Lean Project Management, as well as being effective ongoing Lean Project Management methods.



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