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Lean and Project Management

I regularly run into people from the project world who feel that lean does not apply to the work they do.  While some people are just not open to change, I find that a larger part of this belief stems from the misconception that lean is only applicable to manufacturing or operations environments.  This is unfortunate because project management is a field that can benefit greatly from lean thinking.  Like any successful application, however, benefiting from lean requires looking beyond the tools to gain a fundamental understanding of how lean leads to the benefits it does.  While the philosophy will be the same, the application will differ from traditional manufacturing because of differences in the pace of work and amount of repetition.  Attempting to copy the way lean is applied in a manufacturing operation will only serve to cement the idea that project management is different and cannot benefit from lean thinking.

Super Managers

Studies have shown that more than half of all large projects fail to deliver desired results.  Of those that are successful, I have found that they tend to be led by super managers.  In fact, the poorer the company’s systems and processes are, the more talented and experienced its project team needs to be to make up for the gaps. And although hiring a highly experienced project manager does not guarantee success, it is the only chance a company with weak systems and variable processes has to succeed with its projects.  Unfortunately, relying on super managers also leads to high salaries, high turnover, and increased burnout for the manager and project team members.

Through the application of lean, project success will depend less on a super manager and more on the strength of the company’s processes, systems, and standards, and the ability to improve them when problems arise.  

It’s important to note, however, that with our without lean, the knowledge and skills of the project manager is critical to the project’s success.  Lean thinking can make the job of the project manager easier, though, by enabling him or her to focus less on detailed work and more on high-level objectives and team member development.  Rather than continually relying on super managers, lean creates super teams through standardized processes, effective kaizen, and a focus on developing the abilities of team members.

Getting Started

Some of the basic steps to begin the process of applying lean thinking to large projects include:

Know the Objectives  I am continually amazed at how often project objectives aren’t absolutely clear to everyone on the team.  Having a clear understanding of who the customers are and what they want can go a long way toward assuring the success of a project.  Translating the objectives into safety, quality, schedule, and cost targets will also enable people to connect individual work to project success.  Without continually highlighting all four of these dimensions, people can become so focused on the schedule that they ignore the others – and it is often the safety, quality, and cost issues that lead to schedule problems.

Measure Progress  Creating dashboards that are highly visible to the team helps everyone  know how the project is progressing and where the problems lie.  Emailing an electronic project schedule, reports with a large amount of text, or S-curves does not tend to be as effective as dashboards with leading and lagging indicators of the four dimensions listed above.  Besides the fact that people do not generally open email and read reports (especially when overloaded with work because of poor processes), a visual chart that is in front of people everyday – especially where team meetings are held –  enables everyone to see hotspots that can or may interfere with success.

Focused Meeting Rhythm  One of the most critical, but often ignored elements of lean is a meeting rhythm focused on quick identification and correction of problems.  A project team needs to meet regularly to identify hotspots that are – or have the potential of – interfering with progress.  The rhythm should be set at a pace where problems can be seen quickly enough to act before success is jeopardized.  Selecting the rhythm is one area where traditional thinking needs to be challenged.  Although the work associated with large projects tends to progress at a fairly slow pace, the team should look at whether breaking the reporting into smaller pieces will increase sensitivity and reduce response time to problems.

It also helps if the meetings are held in an obeya, or war room, where the dashboards are located, so the discussion can relate directly to the information on the dashboards.

Another important aspect of meetings is that they be focused only on hotspots needing the team’s attention. Too often, time is wasted in meetings communicating general information or things that have been completed on-time.  This information can be posted on dashboards and read by those who are interested.  The meeting discussion should be limited to problem-solving and discussion of critical elements.  This can be done by focusing the agenda on the gaps between the work that should have happened since the last meeting versus what actually happened.

Swarm Problems Although meeting rhythm should be focused on highlighting hotspots, nobody should wait until a meeting to identify or act on a problem.  The team needs to establish a way to pull the andon when a problem occurs so people can swarm the issue and develop countermeasures quickly that will get the project back on track.

The true benefits from lean will become evident when the mindset of the team changes and people begin to approach work differently.  And counter to what many would like to believe, appealing to common sense will not drive the change in behavior needed for success.  Change will not happen until without a significant amount of teaching, coaching, and close involvement with the team to demonstrate how lean will improve the project, and practice where team members actually apply the process.  As with any change initiative, consistency, determination, and a willingness to learn by everyone – including the person driving lean – are the keys to success.


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.



  1. Pingback: lean project management | SteeringCloud - December 1, 2013

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