lean project management

Right-Size Your Project Management with Lean Principles

Is your project management process derailing your project?

Heavyweight tools can help with large or complex projects… but you and your team can easily spend way too much time managing the process and not nearly enough on the project itself.

Project management methodologies and techniques are tools, not mandates. And the key to succeeding with any project is to use the right tool at the right time in the right situation.  If the process or the tool is not adding value, then don’t use it. 

The same goes for Lean project management. Implementing the full Lean methodology can be a huge undertaking…

…but occasionally borrowing from Lean principles can help you keep things simple, move faster, and deliver more value — without creating more work or stress for your team. 

The Essence of Lean Is Simplicity

Traditional project management methodologies attempt to visualize and plan the entire project at the outset. The project team might work for months or years to execute the full plan — and they’ll typically deliver the entire project at once.

In contrast, Lean projects are broken down into elements of minimum viable value. The team builds out only the most essential features and delivers each element to the end-user as it’s ready. 

This process forces the project team to truly understand the value that the end-user will receive and to focus their time and attention on only the most essential tasks. As a result, the project team can work faster — because they’re doing only the highest leverage work — and the end-user gets access to the deliverable (or part of it) much earlier.

Here’s how this process might look for a team (and project) of any size:

Phase 1: Discovery

Get clear about the desired project outcomes, including the overall goals and the project’s place in the organizational strategy.

Phase 2: Planning

Identify where the value is, and plan how and when you’ll deliver that value. For example, say your team is building a new customer management system. One locus of value might be the integration of that system with an existing billing system.  So you might choose to prioritize delivery of that integration before building out other requested features.

Phase 3: Execution

Create an environment where your team can “flow” through the work. Focus on only the most essential features and tasks, and limit the amount of work in process at any time. Remove bottlenecks wherever possible, so everyone on the team can keep moving forward. 

Phase 4: Validation

Test your product, get feedback, and refine as necessary. Your aim is to deliver a minimum viable product that’s functional and valuable for the end-user, even as your team continues work on other areas of the project.

Phase 5: Iterate

Once you’ve delivered a minimum viable product, you can begin iterating as and when necessary. In many cases, you’ll turn your attention to other elements of the larger project before returning to add features and improvements to your minimum viable products.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Silly)

If you’re working with a small team or on a small project, this method might already sound overly complex. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.

One of the most important lessons of Lean is to focus on effectiveness. Effectiveness is about getting the right things done, so you’re always taking the most important, highest leverage action. Lean methods support effectiveness (and simplicity) by asking you to figure out where the value is in any given process or project. 

Once you know why something is important (and to whom), you can make better decisions about which tasks and actions are most vital. This clarity can help you simplify processes and procedures, so your team can produce the required value without getting bogged down in unnecessary complexity.

For example, I talk about the importance of current state assessments — gaining a full understanding of the current situation before embarking on a project that will transform that area of the business or underlying technology platform. A current state assessment can involve dozens of interviews, multiple surveys, weeks of documentation and research, or the production of a giant report. But in many cases, that degree of complexity is unnecessary. In fact, I’ve often led a team through a current state analysis in an hour. 

The value of a current state assessment lies in having a clear and complete visual representation of an existing process. And you can often get that just by putting the right people in a room with a whiteboard. I use the whiteboard and sticky notes to capture the current process, and then I take a photograph to document it. That way. we get the value of the current state assessment without turning the analysis into its own project. 

The trick is to identify where the value is and stay vigilant about matching the scope of what you’re doing to the scope of what’s actually required to deliver that value. The more you “right-size” your processes, the more quickly and effectively your team will be able to work.

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3 Comments. Leave new

Anthony Colletti
April 6, 2021 3:23 pm

I completely align with the hybrid approach to project delivery. My program efforts are not software-based and operational in nature. The hybrid model provides the structure needed for operations while focusing on the work.

I also took great value in the current state assessment. This is a key focus item for our organization.

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Paul Williams
April 7, 2021 4:34 am

Totally aligned with the approach to size the PM tools to the project. I have had mixed results in MVP minimum viable product where it is used as a method to only do what the business says it needs without guiding the business in gap analysis. PM’s can’t be subject matter experts in every dimension of a project but they can ( and should IMHO) challenge SME’s to explore what’s possible, not just what will “fix” a gap while in the charter or scope phase. Once past that, PM shifts to protecting scope creep, and delivering highest value next.

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I hear the comment frequently about how burdensome the PM processes are, even at a huge multinational corporation! One of the many tricks I use is to stay focused on the goal and turn each step into a conversation. Instead of saying Discovery or get clear on project outcomes and place in the organization portfolio, or even deliverables, I’ve been asking questions like, What do you hope this project achieves? What would delight you? What do you want to avoid?

There is a downside to this. Leaders who don’t really understand the value of project management, who think of it as administrative and not general management, tend to diminish the accomplishments as a PM and think the project happened organically.

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