To lean or not to lean – Project management versus Lean project management

Posted on 12 Nov 2010 by The Manufacturer

Does project management have to be lean to be effective? Darren Walsh, divisional lean manager for hydraulic filtration specialists Parker Hannifin and a graduate of Cardiff University’s Lean MSc programme, explains why traditional project management needs to be revised if it is to support lean enterprise.

“There ’s no place for traditional project management in mature lean environments.” Strong words when you consider that project management shares a similar success rate to implementing change, in that, it is believed that 70% of all projects fail or miss their deadlines and 70% of change fails to deliver the benefits within the planned timeline.

This article will examine some of the key differences between traditional project management and progressive lean project management, where the change agents have learned from past problems and embraced a better understanding of what makes lean really work.

Firstly, let’s review a misunderstanding about what lean really is, which I believe is also a factor in why most organisational change programmes have underperformed in the past and are not sustainable.

What really is “lean”? By now many people have learnt that it is not about the tools, or the five lean principles. Lean is a change in thinking about how we enable the organisation in adding value to the customer and to remove the barriers to flow when it breaks down; it’s about developing our people, processes and systems to continuously challenge the way the organisation works as a whole. Yes we will always need the tools, but we will only apply them based on the problems that we need to resolve and yes the five lean principles are still relevant but this needs the organisation to also change its structure, values and behaviour to be successful.

Traditional project management includes: scoping out and Initiation of projects, planning, project execution, monitoring and budgeting. But how is lean project management fundamentally different? The four fundamental reasons why there is no place for traditional project management thinking in mature lean environments are:

1. The Shortfall of Targets Deming himself warned us of the shortfalls of targets in his System of Profound Knowledge, when he said:

1 Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

2 a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.

b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

When project managers follow up on whether specific activities are in line with their planned dates for gate checks or completion, they drive the very behavior that Deming warned us of (command and control thinking). The reason for this is that when an individual or a group or team of employees are measured on targets – whether it’s output or timeline – they start to focus on the delivery of that target at any cost. Plus if the tasks are challenging and have been incentivised, the problem will be multiplied as people become even more focussed on delivery of the target and can lose sight of what else in the environment is going on. What then happens is the team often achieves the target through either sheer hard work, sometimes by being inventive and sometimes through cutting corners thus making additional mistakes such as skipping a key step (for example a customer return from a missed inspection.

in manufacturing, administrating the wrong drugs in the health service or bridge collapsing after it has just been built at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Whatever the real reason for these mistakes traditional project management and its heavy focus on delivery of tasks to a set timeline, will and does lead to mistakes.

2. Human Factors and Motivation Probably the most important point within organisational change is that the people who do the work must feel that you have their interest at heart before they even consider the logic of the change.

Douglas McGregor discovered theory X and theory Y back in the 1960s, where theory X managers fundamentally believe that people will do a bad job, shirk their responsibilities and need micro-managing whereas, theory Y fundamentally believe that people do not come to work to do a bad job and make mistakes. Theory Y is often good people working in a poor process or system.

So support your employees in changing the system. Motivation theorist Dan Pink also adds that social sciences have proved that the carrot and stick does not work and that for motivating tasks that are inherently difficult and challenging we must use a different means of stimulus.

Therefore let’s provide our project teams with autonomy of task, making them responsible for specific areas of the plan linking the task to the overall purpose, such as building a care home for the elderly, and measure them on mastering specific elements of the role, such as mentoring employees in problem solving or risk management etc.

3. Problem Solving and organisational learning
First start with what is a problem; this requires a little thought but really is something that deviates from standard, once we understand this.

Teach employees at all levels to:

Set a standard
Highlight variation to that standard
Problem Solve

Lean environments will also use voice of the customer to capture what the customer really needs and use A3 thinking to peel back the layers of the onion, develop their staff to look deeper into what the problems are and seek to develop a deeper understanding of how processes actually work. This level of understanding is key otherwise the pressures of deadline can take over adding additional risk to the project. Project delays must never stop the best option for the project from being considered or problems being raised and resolved. Project plans suggest that tasks are all frozen in a ‘this is what we need to do and within this timeline’ approach but the reality is that as soon as a task has been implemented the system has changed and the plan will need constant refinement. Lean project management uses the logic of the A3’s for this discovery constantly asking, what needs to happen, how should it happen, what alternatives have you considered and why have you ruled them out.

4. Visual management and communication
Using visual management in the style of a war or project room the majority of report writing and email updates can be replaced by ensuring that all relevant documents, plans and data are then posted on the walls making all information easy for the team to see. Manual updates are also important to ensure immediate feedback and ownership but it is vital that this involves getting the project management team out from behind their desk, cutting down non-value adding reporting time whilst improving their engagement with the process and the team who own it. For gate reviews, set a standard for exit criteria that you must meet to move to the next stage, combine this with a presentation in the project room and you will get an instant response.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time – while following up on the progress of the project plan, breakdown the tasks into small doable chunks (selecting only the next four to five actions to be discussed at each meeting again this keeps focus on the priorities.

The top level process can also be broken down into individual steps and sometimes these steps are challenged using value stream mapping, for example using value stream mapping of the development stage of the new product introduction process because of the lead-time problem, or installation of new equipment mapping the commissioning stage, here the team can establish the current state for the process and develop and future state.

In summary, the skills and disciplines of project management are still extremely relevant even in a mature lean organisation. Project managers must, however, take on the role of the change agent and leaders of people. They must believe in their people, be there to develop them and adopt a learning mentality to improve how things are done each and every day.