Understanding Lean Project Management

The meaningless mantra of on-time, on-budget

The UK television programme Grand Designs usually starts with a couple who want to build their dream home, vowing to “be in by Christmas “. Two-thirds of the way into the programme, the programme cuts to a snow covered building site. The disconsolate couple have run out of money and are living in a mobile home, adjacent to the site.

Like any novel project, it had been impossible to estimate the cost or duration. In truth, the only way we can estimate reliably is to have done the same thing before…preferably many times.

But most projects are novel! A new problem, a new team and a new customer. And the higher the degree of novelty, the bigger the estimating error.


This is compounded by what psychologists call optimism bias. Not only are we over-optimistic about our estimates, we are innately over-confident about our own ability. We are wired to believe that we are smarter, more experienced and more determined than others. We believe that our projects will be better run and more successful. The statistics say otherwise. There has to be a better way?

A value-based approach

In the Grand Designs example, an alternative approach would have been to deliver the project in a series of chunks of usable value.

When living in a mobile home, a fully-plumbed toilet will have particularly high-value. So the couple could have asked their builder to deliver a working toilet, as a matter of priority. Then perhaps a wash-basin, followed by a shower room. Then a kitchen. Then a bedroom and so on. The total usable value could have been delivered in chunks.

As each chunk of value is delivered, there is an opportunity to compare expectations to what was delivered for:

  • Value and quality
  • Cost and duration
  • Supplier relationship

Lean Project Management

Incremental value-based delivery is at the core of Lean Project Management.

Lean project management

The book, The Machine That Changed The World, described how Toyota re-wrote the rules of manufacturing. The authors defined “five principles of lean thinking “, that can have as big an impact on projects, as they did on manufacturing. :

  • Identify Customers and Specify Value
  • Identify and Map the Value Stream
  • Create Flow by Eliminating Waste
  • Respond to Customer Pull
  • Pursue Perfection

First, we need to think in terms of usable customer value, not long lists of features functions and requirements.

Second, we can use the concept of the value-stream to both critique the development life-cycle and to identify the stream of usable value that will deliver the project vision.

Third, we can eliminate waste by not working on those 80% of functions that are never used (according to the Standish Group’s survey of over 50,000 projects).

Fourth, “pull ” is about working right-to-left, only queuing up that work necessary to deliver a particular chunk of value and nothing else.


Finally, we can “pursue perfection ” because a lean approach is like running lots of mini-projects. Learning cycle times are short, with the same project team, working on the same problem, for the same customer.


Success should be about delivering usable business value, not hitting arbitrary cost and time estimates. We can make this shift by following the lead of manufacturing and putting value at the heart of everything we do.



business-it-logoRecommended Book

Business Leadership for IT Projects outlines a coherent framework on how to successfully run an IT project from a business-centric standpoint. This book provides ideas and tools that are applicable to all sizes of IT projects, from small businesses to large corporations. It details the key areas in which business leadership can have a major influence over the success of an IT project. Furthermore, it offers helpful tools and methods that can be used to strengthen an existing project and jettison it in the right direction or to plan a future project from the start.


Recommended Lean Project Management Course

The Lean Project Management Course was designed for project managers and business managers. However, it can be for anyone who has a leading role in a project. It will benefit experienced project managers who wants to try a new approach that provides a more certain success rate.

Recommended Project Management Software

If you’re interested in learning more about top rated project management software, the editors at Project-Management.com actively recommend the following:

Gary Lloyd

Gary Lloyd is program and project management consultant who specializes in Lean Project Management. He is owner and principal consultant at Double Loop.