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What is Lean Project Management? (2021 Guide)

ClickUp blog man with a Simon toy in hand

If you’ve ever felt that inefficient project workflows prevent you from reaching your full potential, it’s time to go Lean.

But does it mean swapping your favorite double cheese pizzas with fresh salads? 🥗

While that could be great for your health, we’re talking about a different Lean concept here!

Lean project management involves identifying and minimizing waste in your projects while creating more value for the customer.  

In this article, we’ll explore how to apply Lean thinking to project management. We’ll also go over the Lean principles and how to manage Lean projects with ease.  

Let’s dive in.

What Is Lean Project Management?

Lean project management involves utilizing the least amount of project resources to provide what the customer needs when they need it. These resources could be anything like physical equipment or human resources. 

Okay, Lean helps you save resources. 

But that’s it?! 

Nope. 

Each Lean principle focuses on improving every aspect of your work, giving you several benefits like:

  • Reduced costs and lead times
  • Improved customer service
  • Better team productivity and efficiency
  • Enhanced project visibility at the team level
  • Better quality and customer value addition 
  • Improved priority management

Think of it this way, let’s say you’re out drinking, and you ordered two nice cold pints. 🍻  

However, by the time you finished your first beer, the second one had turned flat. 

Not what you wanted, right?

Instead, you could have ordered the second pint when you finished your first beer, based on how thirsty you were and how long it took you to get the pint. 

This way, you’ll get maximum value without wasting resources like time, money, and precious beer! 

a man and a woman drinking beer at a restaurant

The Lean approach was born on the factory floor, with Toyota laying the foundations for the Lean manufacturing principles. 

And what was once Toyota’s “secret weapon” can now be applied to almost any industry, from Lean construction to Lean product development. 

However, regardless of where you apply the Lean concept, the goal remains the same. 

Deliver increased value by eliminating wasteful processes. 

But what is a wasteful process?

Here’s a lean explanation: a wasteful process adds no value to the end product. 

For a meatier answer, we need to know about Muda, Mura, and Muri

While they sound like fancy sushi names 🍣, these Japanese terms refer to three types of waste as defined by the Toyota system:

  • Muda: any activity that consumes resources but doesn’t create value for the customer. Waiting for certain processes to finish, overproduction, and creating defective products are some forms of Muda
  • Mura: business operation irregularities, like uneven workloads, which ultimately affect the project. And in most cases, Mura leads to Muda 
  • Muri: overburdening your project team to meet targets or operating your machines at overcapacity. Now, while Muri usually occurs due to Mura, it can also lead to Muda 

For example, let’s say you have seven software developers and three testers in your project team (Mura.) Then, certain features will have to wait (Muri) before they’re tested.

This also leads to overburdening your testers (Muri), leading to rushed testing and delivering defective software (Muda) to the customer.  

You have to take all three Ms into account to improve your efficiency. 

Alright, but how do I carry all this out?

With the help of the Lean principles!

The Lean Thinking Principles 

The five Lean principles help teams apply the Lean concept to project management. 

So here’s a close look at each Lean principle:

1. Define value

To lay Lean’s foundations, you first need to define the value of your product or service. 

Only then can you precisely determine wastes like Muda. 

But what does value mean?

Value is defined in the eyes of the customer. 

What they’re willing to pay for. 👀

However, customers may not now know exactly what they want. 

And even if they do, they may not be able to express it entirely, especially if you’re creating something as revolutionary as the next iPhone.

So what can you do?

Use techniques like surveys and web analytics to understand what your customers value. 

Brainstorm with your project team and ask questions like:

  • What is our customer demand?
  • Why and by when do they need it?
  • How are we delivering it to them?

This way, you’ll be able to specify the value in the customer’s words. 

2. Perform value stream mapping

Once you’ve defined the customer value, you need to map out the value stream

What’s a value stream?

A value stream shows all the processes, both value-added and non-value added, involved in the project. 

For example, the value stream at a brewery would include malting, milling, shipping the delicious beer, etc. 

I mean, you can’t conjure beer out of thin air, right? 

Homer Simpson saying wow a free beer

During value stream mapping, you create a map 🗺️ outlining all the steps involved in:

  • Research and development
  • Production
  • Human resource management
  • Marketing and sales

The guiding question is what happens next and who does it.

But why should you map value?

Creating a value stream map helps teams understand how value flows through the entire process. 

More importantly, it helps you pinpoint unnecessary steps and bottlenecks in the workflows. 

You can then find ways to reduce their impact or eliminate them to create a Lean process.

3. Eliminate waste to make the value flow

It’s now time to take out the trash. 🗑️

Or at least reduce as many wasteful processes as possible. 

The idea is to eliminate or limit backlogs, interruptions, and other delays to create a continuous flow of value to the customer. 

This, in turn, helps improve your team’s efficiency. 

How do you do that?

Analyze your value stream map and pick out your Muda.

Now there are two types of Mudas:

  • Activities that aren’t relevant to the customer but are essential for proper delivery
  • Non-value added activities that are unnecessary

For example, in software development projects, you’ll have various stages like design, development, testing, and several review phases.

Activities like testing fall under type one Muda. So you can’t eliminate them. 

Instead, try to minimize the resources that go into such activities.

On the other hand, some of those review phases could fall under type two Muda, especially if you have fewer reviewers for the number of reviews needed. This also leads to overburdening.

Other strategies you can use to smoothen your workflows include:

  • Breaking down large processes into smaller steps
  • Distributing out the workload equally
  • Creating cross-functional teams

4. Let the customer pull the flow

Remember the beer example we discussed earlier?

Let’s say the bartender poured out ten pints before you entered the pub. 

And the moment you placed the order, they served you from those ten pints. 

Sure, you’ll get your drinks within seconds. 

But they’re gonna be flat beers.  

Ugh. ☹️

In manufacturing or software development, this would mean overproduction and stockpile. 

And what does it translate to? Waste.

That’s why Lean management prefers pull-based systems

Understand when the customer needs the product/service, and in what quantities, and deliver accordingly. 

Even if you have enough resources to perform the task in advance, moderate the projects’ flow based on your resource capacity. Limiting the amount of work-in-progress items is an excellent approach here.

5. Embrace continuous improvement in the pursuit of perfection

While this Lean principle sounds like a motivational mantra, you can’t embrace it by meditating.

Shakira pretending to meditate

But before we understand what it means, here’s a question:

Can you achieve perfection?

No. There’ll always be scope for improvement.

So you end up pursuing perfection, which involves regularly analyzing stuff and making necessary improvements (also known as continuous improvement.) 

And that’s what this principle is all about!

Constantly review and improve your workflows to make them as Lean as possible. 

However, as this is a continuous process, you must make the Lean methodology a part of your organizational culture.  

Ultimately, focus on what adds value and find ways to get at least 1% better each day

Note: The five principles we discussed revolve around improving processes. And while they are conceptually similar, you have another set of seven principles that are more people-oriented

Applying the Lean technique for managing projects is like cooking an egg. 🍳

There are just so many ways to choose from! 

Here, we’ll check out three popular project management techniques that you can use to practice the Lean methodology:

1. Deming Cycle

The Deming Cycle is one of the most basic implementations of the Lean method.

If we’re still talking about eggs, this would be your classic boiled eggs. 

Best for recurring projects, the Deming Cycle defines an iterative four-step method for the continuous improvement of project workflows.

These fours steps are:

  • Plan: analyze the current problems in your workflows and identify solutions. Additionally, predict what the outcomes of your process improvement efforts would be  
  • Do: implement the solutions for a pilot project
  • Study: study the pilot project’s results and see if they match your predicted outcomes 
  • Act: make any additional improvements and standardize the process  
Deming cycle

2. Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma is a cross between the Lean project management methodology and the Six Sigma approach.

And compared to the Deming Cycle, Lean Six Sigma can be a bit more complicated. 

Like cooking a perfectly poached egg. 

poached egg on toast

You go through five phases to identify the root cause of inefficiencies and eliminate them:

  • Define your project scope, goals, and customer value
  • Determine how you’ll quantify and measure success during the project
  • Explore different ways to complete the project to identify any process improvement
  • Create a solid project plan once you analyze customer needs
  • Implement the plan to achieve your objectives

During these phases, you apply Lean and Six Sigma tools like value stream mapping, Gantt chart illustrations, root cause analysis, etc., to follow continuous improvement.

3. Kanban

Kanban is a workflow visualization technique that’s as popular and loved by teams as scrambled eggs

It uses both Agile and Lean management principles to:

  • Streamline workflows through standardized task queues like “To Do,” “In Progress,” “Done”
  • Improve team communication to ensure everyone is on the same page about the project

For this, Kanban visualizes tasks with a Kanban board system that looks like Solitaire. 🃏

Here’s how a Kanban board looks like in ClickUp, the one of world’s best project management software:

Kanban board in ClickUp
Work in Progress Limits- adjusting tasks in Board view

Explore the depths of Kanban project management.

Lean vs Agile: A Quick Comparison

Most teams get confused between Lean and Agile, and for good reasons.

Both management techniques involve:

  • Continuous improvement
  • Enhancing customer value
  • Continuous flow of results
  • Efficient timelines

However, Lean and Agile project management are like fraternal twins. 

While they have some similarities, they are still two very different individuals. 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

Sure, you have the Agile Manifesto, while there’s no such formal document for the Lean method. But more importantly, the Agile approach focuses on creating fantastic products quickly

The Agile methodology also encourages open communication between the customer and the development team through an iterative feedback process.  

On the other hand, Lean mainly focuses on improving workflows by eliminating waste.  

Additionally, Lean teams put customers first by creating efficient processes that help them do just that. 

For an in-depth comparison, read up on Lean vs. Agile project management

How To Manage Lean Projects In 2021

With the principles and a Lean technique like Kanban in hand, you’re ready to manage projects, right? 

Stop!

Unless you prefer spreadsheet hell, you need the best project management software to help you with the Lean method.

For effortless Lean project management, use ClickUp

The highest-rated project management software!

ClickUp comes power-packed with several features that help streamline your project management process and boost efficiency.

Here’s a quick peek at some of our favorites:

  • Mind Maps: map your value streams with free-form Mind Maps 🖌️
  • Kanban Boards: visualize your tasks with a powerful drag-and-drop interface   
  • Resource Management: say goodbye to Mura and Muri with ClickUp’s excellent workload management features. Perfect for any Scrum master or Lean project manager!
  • Assigned Comments: ensure that your comments never get lost among other project communications
  • Docs: create and store all your project-related documents alongside your projects for easy management  
  • Gantt Chart view: stay ahead of your project with intuitive Gantt charts in ClickUp
  • Dashboards: create a custom mission-control center for your Lean project
  • Priorities: know your project priorities to deliver what the customer needs on time ⌛
  • Portfolios: track every aspect of your business for effective portfolio management
  • Integrations: streamline workflows across multiple apps like GitHub, Google Drive, Zoom, and more  

And don’t just take our word for it!

See what our clients say about ClickUp. 🤩

Lean Into Better Workflows And Projects

Better efficiency, quality products, cost savings… Lean has a lot to offer. 

So if you think it’s time to embrace this methodology, use the Lean project management principles to analyze your current process and see how you can improve them. 

And remember, for effective Lean project management, you need the right software. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to look beyond ClickUp!

From excellent Kanban Board functionality to awesome Dashboards and more, ClickUp offers a wide variety of features perfect for Lean teams.

Get ClickUp for free and start your Lean transformation journey today!

Homer Simpson jogging with his dog

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