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In turbulent economic times, the charge from many organizations is to do more with less and to work smarter and faster to achieve results (and profits). 

So, what if there was a project management methodology that could help you do this? Enter lean project management, which started as a way to create efficiencies in manufacturing processes.

If you’re looking to level up your project team’s efficiency this year, look to lean for some inspiration.

What Is Lean Project Management?

The foundation of lean project management is a continuous improvement cycle. The project work is being completed with an eye toward how the team can be more efficient. The team is working together to find ways to reduce waste and increase the value of the project work to the customer.

Lean can trace its roots back to the early days of the automotive industry. Henry Ford’s end-to-end production process predates lean manufacturing. His process has an optimal flow but has some serious limitations. 

The Ford Model T was only available in one color. The process he designed worked well to make identical vehicles, but the work processes did not extend to allow for any variety in the production.

Other players in the automotive industry began to tackle the challenge of creating systems to allow for more variety and faster development cycles. However, there were still inefficiencies in these processes.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that Japanese leaders at Toyota began to look for opportunities for improvement. They took the original work from Ford’s plant and made some updates. They called their new process the Toyota Production System (TPS).

According to The Lean Enterprise Institute, “This system in essence shifted the focus of the manufacturing engineer from individual machines and their utilization, to the flow of the product through the total process. 

Toyota concluded that by right-sizing machines for the actual volume needed, introducing self-monitoring machines to ensure quality, lining the machines up in process sequence, pioneering quick setups so each machine could make small volumes of many part numbers, and having each process step notify the previous step of its current needs for materials, it would be possible to obtain low cost, high variety, high quality, and very rapid throughput times to respond to changing customer desires.”

The Toyota production system (and its successor, lean) worked to address inefficiencies in three types of resource allocations. They were muda (waste), mura (unevenness), and muri (overburden).


Muda or wastefulness is the opposite of a value add. It’s also the stuff that customers aren’t going to pay for. Some types of muda, like testing and QA, are necessary in the production process (especially for things like custom software development). 

So while the customer may not want to pay for them, the project team must complete these activities to ensure they are delivering the right product. Other types of waste, sometimes called type 2 muda, are the kind that project teams should strive to eliminate. There are seven categories of type 2 muda, collectively referred to as the seven wastes.

“The seven wastes are (1) Transport, i.e., excess movement of product, (2) Inventory, i.e., stocks of goods and raw materials, (3) Motion i.e., excess movement of machine or people, (4) Waiting, (5) Overproduction, (6) Over-processing, and (7) Defects.”


Irregularity and unevenness are referred to as mura. The seven wastes we described in muda can lead to mura in a process. Mura can happen when project team members have the uneven capacity to do the work. 

For example, if you have a team of four software engineers who are working on a project sequentially, and one of the four engineers is splitting his time between two other projects. This engineer’s limited availability can lead to unevenness in the production process which can cause bottlenecks and delays.


Muri means overburden, or to over allocate project resources. Like Mura can be a result of Muda, Muri can also be impacted by the other two types of inefficiency. Muri can mean that either a machine or a person is being asked to run at over 100% of capacity. 

We all know that pushing machines to their limit can cause wear and tear and premature breakage. The same thing can happen to people (while they don’t actually break, they do burn out).

Standardizing workflows and doing capacity planning exercises can help reduce Muri in projects.

While these processes started with the likes of Ford and Toyota, today, lean project management isn’t just found in the automotive industry. Many teams are leveraging lean project management methodologies to respond to customer demands and bring customer value to the forefront of their work.

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5 Principles Of Lean Project Management

In 1996, Womack and Jones proposed a 5 step thought process for managers to use as they guide their teams through lean project management. The five principles they outlined are:

1. Identify the value

The lean process starts by identifying the value. To put this concept in really simple terms, all you’re doing is identifying all of the things that the customer is willing to pay for. This is not unlike presenting an estimate and scope of work along with proposed pricing to a client to determine if they want to move things forward.

2. Identify the value stream for each product

The next step in the process involves doing some value stream mapping. This will give you a visual of all the work that needs to be done. You want to be as thorough as possible because your value stream map will be used in the next step to determine how things will get done in the project.

3. Create the flow

The goal of the flow is to ensure a smooth process with no downtime from the start of the project to the end. This is designed to create maximum efficiency in the process and help prevent lags or bottlenecks in production. 

To create the flow, look at your value stream map and visualize the process from start to finish. You may need to run the process in real time to see if there are any gaps or places where you need to streamline the flow.

4. Establish the pull

Having a streamlined production process (aka the flow) allows your customers or stakeholders to pull the product from you as needed. This is because the production time should be relatively short (the exact time frame will be dictated by the complexity of the product or service you’re building). 

In a well-running lean process, you don’t need a lot of lead time to get a product to the customer just in time for them to use it. This pull system allows companies or project teams to avoid having to build up inventory or stockpile items in case of an order, saving the company time and money.

5. Pursue perfection

The pursuit of perfection is a project team or company wide principle that requires a lot of teamwork. As the project team goes through steps 1-4 of this process, they should look for process improvements to bring the workflow as close to perfection as possible. 

This means empowering team members to speak up when they see inefficiencies or to open their minds to trying other ways of completing the work. When talking about the pursuit of perfection, you may hear the word kaizen come up. This is a mash-up of two Japanese words that translate to “good change” and “improvement.” 

As lean methodologies have grown in popularity, kaizen has come to mean continuous improvement. This will always be a work in progress as perfection can be a subjective target.

Lean Project Management in Action

Lean project management isn’t just for producing cars or other machinery. Since this site is for digital project managers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share examples of digital projects that were (or could be) completed using lean methodology.

Lean has a place in software and product development as it can reduce the bloat in code and product roadmaps. Since lean is all about removing anything that does not provide value to the end-user or customer. It’s a great way to ensure what is being built is exactly the right thing.

You may have heard of (or even used) a system of continuous improvement called plan-do-check-act (PDCA). This is sometimes called the Deming Cycle or PDCA. According to the American Society for Quality, the procedure is:

  1. Plan: Recognize an opportunity and plan a change.
  2. Do: Test the change. Carry out a small-scale study.
  3. Check: Review the test, analyze the results, and identify what you've learned.
  4. Act: Take action based on what you learned in the study step.

Going through this cycle in a lean project can help to get the flow closer to perfection. When going through the project management process, it can be helpful to schedule time for PDCA cycles at appropriate places in your project plan.

Outside the digital world, you’ll find lean methodologies used in various industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, government, retail, and human resources.

3 Pros Of Lean Project Management

Creates a culture of continuous improvement

Lean projects are designed with continuous improvement in mind. They strive to keep working processes flexible so that all team members can make suggestions or try new ways of working that will make the organization or project better. 

Even if you’re not looking to adopt lean project management into your organization, taking inspiration from the methodology to think about continuous improvement in your project team culture may serve you well in the long run. 

If you and your team set up dashboards to track project work in progress, you can use the data there to track improvement (or lack thereof as well).

Improves visibility with project stakeholders and customers

Because one of the core principles of lean is to cut out any waste and deliver only what the customer values, lean projects require a lot of input from the customer or stakeholder. 

This ensures no extra effort or scope is undertaken when completing a lean project. When scoping deliverables, key stakeholders should be involved in the process to ensure the final statement of work only contains things that are of value.

Reduces costs of doing project work

Since lean project management relies on the pull and prevents companies from building things before they’re needed, costs can be reduced since things that aren’t needed won’t be ordered, and there shouldn’t be a cost to store excess inventory.

Additionally, by working to pursue perfection, lean thinking asks team members to be consistently keeping an eye on the bottom line. If there are ways to improve efficiencies and reduce costs, team members should implement them and continue to iterate and drive further improvements in the bottom line.

2 Drawbacks Of Lean Project Management

Easy to lose track of the bigger picture

When using lean methodologies, it’s possible to lose sight of the bigger picture. This is because in a lean project life cycle, you’re looking for small and incremental improvements. Lean doesn’t provide many opportunities to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

In this type of environment, it’s possible to be “pennywise and pound foolish” because what may save time or effort in one part of the project may cause more work (or rework) in another.

Lean can be more reactive than proactive

Lean is designed such that users are pulling out just what they need when they need it. This is because lean was designed to help avoid overproduction. 

So what does this mean for a project? It means that sometimes lean puts project teams in a situation where they need to be reactive instead of setting them up to be proactive.

Lean vs Agile Project Management

The biggest difference between using a lean approach and agile is how they look at work speed. In agile project management, we get speed from breaking work into smaller increments and working in short sprints. In lean project management, speed comes from managing work flow and limiting how much work is in progress at a given time.

Lean tends to play the long game and looks to optimize the ongoing process, whereas Scrum is about managing work in smaller batches and iterating for the next sprint. While agile practitioners aim for continuous improvement sprint over sprint, it is a more narrow focus than lean project management.

Another methodology to consider is Kanban, which is an agile framework that a Toyota engineer also invented. In this framework, work in progress at a given time is limited to allow project team members to focus and visualize and improve workflows, and reduce waste. The visualization comes in the form of a Kanban board

The board will consist of a few columns to house the backlog (work to complete), work in progress, work that needs to be validated or QA’d, and work that is complete. Today many project management software tools can display work on kanban boards. 

So, no matter which project management methodology you choose, there are plenty of tools and templates to support you.

Find more agile methodologies here.

Implementing Lean Project Principles in Your Organization

If your organization is looking to implement a project management methodology that values continuous improvement, it may be time to consider bringing lean into your organization. You may need to make adjustments to your project management tools and processes to be able to implement this methodology and a new way of thinking.

Whether you’re simply looking to streamline production on digital projects or products or focus on customer satisfaction by ensuring that your efforts only focus on what matters to the customer, lean project management can bring formal processes to these efforts.

Want to learn more about lean project management or other project management methodologies (such as hybrid methodologies) and how they’re used in a digital environment? Sign up for our newsletter for additional articles and tips.

By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.

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