The lean project management handbook

Lean project management is a term that’s been making waves across industries, specialties, job titles and niches for a long time now.

The reason it’s so popular is that the lean project management philosophy has one goal: Deliver the most amount of value, with the least amount of waste.

For marketers, HR professionals, founders, real estate brokers, product managers, and everyone in between—it’s easy to get behind a philosophy as attractive as that.

Sure, as industries, specialties, job titles and niches change, so will the relative constraints on the success of a specific project.

A marketer might be looking to balance the skills on his team with a budget of $15,000 to spread across channels and campaigns, whereas a project manager might be balancing her team’s time dedicated to tackling the backlog against pushing new features live. Lean project managers can help bring this to fruition.

Whatever your constraints or unique business needs, lean project management is the method for ensuring quality, efficiency and consistency - all of which are lean principles.

In this post, we’ll give you an overview of the methodology and what to look for in a project management tool so you can always deliver your best.

What is lean project management?

For the last 15 years, there’s been a consistent interest in reducing project management workflows. But where did it come from and how did the concept originate?

The concept’s roots go back to the 1990s. In fact, the term ‘lean project management’ initially originated with Toyota. Yep, the car manufacturing company. Specifically, Toyota tested, developed and perfected a philosophy and practice they refer to as the Toyota Production System (TPS).

This system is meant to be a way of crafting vehicles smoothly and efficiently, in order to remove overburden and inconsistency, and eliminate waste. From within this system, the concept of lean project management emerged. Today, teams use these lean principles to reduce bottlenecks to get things done. Lean thinking is applicable to almost any portfolio of projects.

What is the lean project management methodology?

Getting into all the nitty-gritty details can be like going down a rabbit hole with no end in sight. Most of it is interesting, and if you really want to go deep into it, you should read Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation.

But instead of paraphrasing the entire Lean Thinking book, let’s go over what’s most important. When beginning to implement lean thinking in your business, you must first understand the core principles of the lean project management methodology. The book introduces five lean principles:

  1. Specify customer value. All this really means is to get a grasp on how much a customer is willing to pay for your product or service. It’s about answering what you’re making, why you’re making it and for whom. Do your user research, use surveys, interviews, polls and other forms of customer research in order to best understand exactly what customers think of your product. When you understand this, you’ll be better off with positioning, strategy, and execution throughout the rest of the project to ensure you maintain quality and customer satisfaction.
  2. Identify the value stream. The value stream identifies all actions needed to bring the product, service or project to fruition. From idea to end goal, create a value stream of every single task, action, and to-do that must be done in order to illustrate how the process should unfold.
  3. Map the value stream. Now that you understand what value customers associate with your business as well as the overall value stream, you’re able to really dig in and analyze each. Find out where stoppages occur and where there’s risk. Look into spots and actions that can be improved, optimized or eliminated in order to increase efficiency and value. Your goal is to deliver the most amount of value with the least amount of effort required.
  4. Use customer pull. Here’s where you go back to providing real customer value. Evaluate a customer’s true needs: What do they need and when do they need it? What’s the best way to deliver it? By having the customer’s desired outcome guide you, you’re able to develop a flow that truly puts the voice of the customer at the core of your process.
  5. Continuously improve. The final step is all about pursuing perfection. Your goal here is to continually evaluate the process and flow in order to improve it. This is an attitude that should be applied to every product, service or project you work on.

How to put lean project management into practice

Now that you have a grasp on the core principles of lean project management, you’re ready to start putting it into practice.

In order to start, there are two things you absolutely need to do:

First things first, document ALL your processes.

Adopting a new project management framework (or adopting one for the first time) will be a learning curve. As the internal champion around the process, it’s up to you to help encourage everyone else to get on board. Project management soft skills come to play here.

The best way to transition is by documenting everything. The more time spent on writing down step-by-step guidelines, the more consistency you’ll create. In turn, you should be prepared to help with training and learning.

Encourage your collaborators to consistently reference process documentation and ask questions when they arise. Having daily stand-up meetings or check-ins with teams will help. Ensuring that there’s one place where all internal docs live is also important.

Remember, project management is all about continuous improvement, so don’t expect things to be perfect from the start. Give your team time to adjust and get settled into the new way of doing things.

Then, select the best lean project management software tool

The optimal lean project management tool will work alongside your documented processes, without making anything more complicated than it should be. When looking for a tool you want to make sure:

  • It clearly shows you tasks and to-dos that are in progress, complete or on hold. At a minimum, your tool should give you a quick overview right away of what’s happening and its status.
  • It clearly defines who is responsible. You absolutely need to be able to assign tasks to various stakeholders, so you can understand who is doing what and know who to talk to, when.
  • It makes referencing documentation easy. Remember how I mentioned that you need a tool that makes internal documentation as visible as possible? Ideally, your team should be able to reference documentation from within the same platform they’re using to manage their tasks. This eliminates having to jump through different tools. This makes it easier for your team to get up and running with lean project management.
  • It simplified everything. There will be a lot of project management tools out there with dozens of options. From Gantt Charts to Kanban to everything in between, it’s your task to champion a tool that simplifies the overly complex. Do not choose a tool that adds layers of complication into the process. Instead, go for something like DoneDone that’s simple, smart and easily used.

Lean thinkers obsess about waste

Waste in manufacture or construction is easy to visualize but for non-physical work like software development which does not involve a physical end-product, waste is hard to visualize. The waste concepts within lean thinking extend far beyond physical waste. Lean software developers Mary and Tom Poppendieck believe waste is stuff which doesn’t give the customers value or contribute to customer satisfaction.

Lean project managers obsess about eliminating waste.  This is particularly true of the waste that arises from miscommunication and misunderstanding of the value stream.

Waste can arise within lean project management, for example; lack of customer involvement, unnecessary busy work or work done without good reason will all generate waste.

When you are planning your next task make sure to include some activity which ensures value (or customers satisfaction). Ask yourself whether this task is intended to improve customer satisfaction or merely appease internal stakeholders. There's a big difference.

Once you've confirmed a task does add customer value, make sure to document how it contributes to the value stream map. It's always a good idea to include this context when logging tasks for software development teams.  This will help ensure your team is on the same page.

Cut the waste and find success

All in, lean project management is a solution to bloated project management frameworks. Follow the lean project management methodology. Document everything to bring your team on board. Make sure you select the right project tracking tool. When do you all this, you're sure to find success.

DoneDone was created with lean project management in mind. It's simple yet robust; our goal is to help you eliminate wasted time and resources while making it as easy as possible for you to track and complete your projects.

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