What Is Lean Project Management?

Mark Wollacott

Lean project management seeks to focus project management toward the cutting of non-essential elements. The objective is to reduce costs, eliminate bottlenecks and improve overall productivity. As a byproduct, management itself is often streamlined.

Lean project management may mean that fewer people are collaborating.
Lean project management may mean that fewer people are collaborating.

Streamlining projects originated in Japan during the 1980s. John Krafcik coined the term "lean manufacturing" in 1988 to demonstrate measures taken to improve productivity. In the 1990s, this was then applied to the construction industry by thinkers such as Lauri Koskela. The idea has since permeated all types of project management.

Lean project management seeks to correct common mistakes in traditional project management.
Lean project management seeks to correct common mistakes in traditional project management.

Traditional project management is broken down into a number of phases, including initiation, planning, research and development, and production. In addition, there is a control system in place to monitor each phase. Such projects tend to keep different departments or teams separate from one another. They also are prone to deviation from the phase structure and miscommunication.

Lean project management, on the other hand, looks to correct common mistakes in traditional project management. A common misconception among project managers is that lean management leads to an abandonment of these phases. Lean management actually sticks more closely to those phases. This forces the project team to create stronger plans without deviation.

To keep more strictly to the cycle, some companies realized, they needed to encourage collaboration between teams. This has become a key component of lean project management. First, all stakeholders in the project participate in the project initiation phase. This means that everyone is on the same page when the next phase begins.

Then designers and producers work together on research and development as well as production. By taking part in production, designers are more likely to make practical designs. This cuts down on the time taken for redesigns. It also cuts down on communication loops between management, designers and the production team, because they are all physically in the same space.

A key component of all streamlining in business is reducing costs, and lean management is no different. Most project managers seek to pin down the materials needed for a project as early as possible. The majority of projects, however, are prone to changes in design and materials. By purchasing early, the project team actually overspends on materials and creates a lot of waste.

By comparison, lean project management aims to lock down material orders at the last reasonable point in time. This means giving the research and development department as much time as possible to finalize designs but avoids creating a massive gap between development and production. This way, only the materials that are needed are purchased. They also are more likely to be purchased in the correct quantities.

The control element of project management is also integral to lean project management. On-site monitoring reduces communication loops and increases productivity. Project managers might instigate plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) cycles on all elements of the project to learn from mistakes. This also helps keep the project focused and helps avoid deviation from the core objective.

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