When Project managers study or learn Lean Six Sigma they often take the learnings and apply to what they do. In general, they run Lean Six Sigma projects and aim to cut waste from their area of focus. However, people often forget to actually work in a lean way themselves. They forget to cut the waste on how they work and how they run projects. Enter the concept of Lean Project Management. Essentially, this is holding the mirror up to yourself to stop waste and inefficiencies in how you work.

What Waste Gets in the Way of Lean Project Management?

Waste happens everywhere. When running projects, it’s harder to spot as activities and processes happen less frequently than a defined operational process. But it’s definitely still there. In fact, it’s often in abundance with lots of “low hanging fruit” or quick wins to achieve.

The principles of Lean Six Sigma concentrate on eradicating or reducing this waste. In the same way, these principles can be applied to the process of project management. However, to adopt the lean project management principles, first you need to identify the chronic sources of waste in what you do and how you do it.

Using TIM WOOD to identify your waste

You can use the same principles as Lean Six Sigma to identify waste in project management. TIM WOOD is the classic way of remembering the 7 wastes that are non-value add. Each of these absorb time, money and attention. The 7 types of waste are:

  • Transport
  • Inventory
  • Movement
  • Waiting
  • Overproduction
  • Overprocessing
  • Defects

Read more about TIM WOOD and the 7 wastes.

Examples of waste in ‘fat’ project management

Once you take the TIM WOOD principles of identifying waste, you’ll be able to also find the waste in how you manage projects. Here are 10 examples that you may have come across:

  • Paper based processed and entering data from paper into a system
  • Looking for “lost” documents – or trying to find the latest versions
  • Excessive people CC’d into emails
  • Lack of collaboration between teams and individuals (with the believe that knowledge is power)
  • Manually doing repetitive work, especially reporting
  • Waiting for approvals and sign offs
  • Waiting for late meetings to start
  • Long, useless and ineffective meetings
  • Reworking documents again and again with minor tweaks
  • And perhaps the worst of all, treachery, animosity and working against each other, despite working for the same company

How many of those have you personally experienced? All 10?

Well, all 10 are forms of waste that are commonly encountered by project managers. Each of these get in the way of lean project management. All 10 result in wasted time and money. Also, all 10 allow your competitors to take steps forward whilst you stay still and spin your wheels.

Just imagine for a moment what it would be like if all of those were instantly fixed….


And, back to reality and let’s make this happen.

Defining Lean Project Management Principles

I hope that you can feel and see what the benefits could be to stop waste in project management.

Lean Six Sigma is a project management methodology focused on stopping waste. Using the same principles, you can transform your ways of working to lean project management. In turn, this lean project management approach will give benefits such as saved time, reduced costs and better results for your customers.

To work in a lean project management way, you can follow these principles

  1. Think of your project as a process
  2. Defining value in your customer’s eyes
  3. Knowing your boundaries and scope
  4. Solve the root cause of your issues
  5. Focusing on value add activities and eliminate the waste
  6. Respect your customers, suppliers and colleagues
  7. Continuously improve

Let’s explore each of these principles a little more. Plus, you’ll see an opportunity to have a

1. Think of your project as a process

Lean six sigma is focused on process improvement. Think of your project as a process too and you can apply lean thinking. As you kick off your project and lay out your plan, you are essentially mapping your process.

Think of each activity in your plan as a process step. Each will have an input and an output. Also, each will have a corresponding supplier and customer.

Make sure these inputs and output are understood which will stop future delays. Not only will it reduce wait times, but it will also minimise excessive work and will help you focus on the work that needs to be done.

Also, focus on removing bottlenecks by reviewing your plan and forecasting where your pinch points will be.

2. Defining value in your customer’s eyes

Lean Six Sigma is focused on delivering for customers. Taking the same CTC (Critical to Customer) mentality will improve what the project team produces. You’ll be focusing on delivering the value that your customers actually care about. You can read more about this in our article about Lean in Retail.

Understand the customer requirements that are being asked of you as a project manager. Not the requirements of your project.

As a project manager, you have several key customers and stakeholders. These include:

  • Your sponsor
  • Your programme manager or director
  • The project team
  • The PMO (Project Management Office)

You should also consider related processes and procedures. What are they asking of you? How can you best focus on what is critical to them?

By understanding what is important and valuable to YOUR customers, you’ll be able to focus on them early and quickly. As a result, you’ll find that your project progresses smoothly by applying a lean project management approach.

3. Knowing your boundaries and scope

Strictly, this is from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. However, the same principle is also relevant for lean project management.

Understand and work within your circle of influence. Once you understand this, you understand the potential scope for how to run lean projects.

Don’t try to cure “world hunger”. In fact, you risk delivering nothing at all if you try to take on more than you are capable of. You’ll take the intention of applying these lean project management principles. So, make a step change difference to what you can influence and start realising the benefits.

4. Solve the root cause of your issues

When a problems presents itself to you, you’ll often first see it as a symptom only.

Think of going to the doctor with a stomach ache – this is the symptom. The doctor could treat the symptoms and give you some pills which make you feel better. But it might come back and that’s a sign that you haven’t actually fixed what’s wrong, you haven’t got to the root cause.

The doctor will now need to investigate in more depth to find out what’s really going on – what’s the root cause. They may then give you a different remedy that is focused on solving the root cause, not just the symptom.

It’s just the same for taking on problems through your project. Plus it is a classic concept of lean thinking. Take the concept and apply it when you’re transforming to lean project management thinking.

Understand the problems in how you are managing your project by using tools like a fishbone diagram or 5 why. Once you find the root cause, find a fix fast and get on with the project.

5. Focusing on value add activities and eliminate the waste

Once you’ve found the waste in how you run a project, you’ll want to eliminate it. This will be key if you want to think in more of a lean project management way.

To help you with this, I’ve put together a checklist of 26 things that you can do to cut the waste in running projects. They’re easy to apply and will instantly help you operate and think in a lean project management way.

You can get this checklist as a bonus when you join my free email club today.

Use these 26 ideas to make a step change in how you work… starting today. Remember, it’s free to sign up, you can unsubscribe at any time and you’ll get instant access to that checklist.

6. Respect your customers, suppliers and colleagues

One of the main lean principles when running projects is to respect people. By respecting people, you learn more. You can help people more and you’ll come up with a better solution. This principle should also be applied to lean project management too.

Respect the people around the project. Aim to create an environment of collaboration. In turn, your stakeholders will start to support you more. In fact, they’ll also support your journey towards lean project management.

7. Continuously improve

A key theme in lean thinking is the desire to continually improve. The concept of Kaizen is to always strive to be better.

Lessons learned will help to continuously improve. However, they’re often not done, not used or just forgotten.

Instead, take a weekly look at how you are running your projects. Take the “plus points” and work out how you can do more of this. Then take the challenges that you experienced and work out how you’ll do things differently. Record this down and review at the end of the following week to see how you’ve got on.

Just remember, you’re aiming to shift to lean project management, not just using lean in your project. As you’re doing this review, think about how you’ve managed your project, not the what happened in the project.

Putting Lean Project Management Principles into Practice – Take Action!

The most important part of the journey to lean project management is to take action. Without taking action, nothing changes. In fact, without action, all you have done it to create more waste. That’s more waste that your project customers don’t value. It’s more waste that is preventing you from making progress. Plus, it’s allowing your competitors to surge ahead without you.

Remember to sign up to my email list to get my 26 ideas that you can implement today to help you be better at working in a lean project management way.

Start with identifying the 7 wastes

Keep the 7 wastes in mind as you convert to working in a lean project management way. Continue to think of TIM WOOD as you go about your working day. Then, every time you spot a waste, write it down into a list.

You’ll be surprised just how quickly you can find examples of the different types. Once you’ve found them, you need to eliminate the waste. Eliminate the non-value add (NVA). Finally, aim to reduce and combine residual NVA activities that can’t be eliminated.

Comment below for the major wastes that you find and what you’re thinking of doing about them.

After you’ve targeted the 7 wastes, focus on delivering the value for your customers and keep a continuous improvement mindset. Soon, you’ll love the lean project management approach!

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s tried a number of different techniques over his 14 years of working on different types and sizes of projects. He blends classic project management techniques from PRINCE2 and PMBOK with the customer focused and efficiencies of Lean Six Sigma. Then he adds a dose of pragmatism and business reality to ensure retail projects are led, managed and delivered successfully.


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