PMAW: Lean tools and techniques for project management

The Lean and project management missions are largely the same in delivering customer value. But some Lean tools and methodologies are directly applicable to project management. These include:

  • Value stream mapping. Lean organizations align themselves along value streams, charting the continuous flow to the customer, irrespective of the category of work. The value stream is more linear than the work breakdown structure (WBS) of project management, which is typically aligned along functions and work packages.
  • Work cells. Lean manufacturers reconfigure production lines in work cells. The theory is easy hand-off from one cell to the next. For example, if one person finishes soldering a component to a printed circuit board, the next step is performed in the immediately adjacent work cell, and the final cell is near a packaging or shipping area. A knowledge-based organization is unlikely to align itself that way but can arrange a content management system such that the next cell in a value stream has immediate access to finished work.
  • One-piece flow. The close proximity of the work cells allows work to be handed off as soon as it is finished, rather than waiting for a “batch” of work to be completed. This prevents the creation of inventories between steps and minimizes the delays as workers wait for batches to be delivered.
  • Kaizen. This is a structured process in Lean, which engages those closest to a process to improve that process. The goal is to remove waste and add standardization. The workers often work in a kaizen team, aimed at solving a particular problem or perfecting the flow in a given area. Lean organizations empower employees to make most changes without supervision; otherwise, they use a simple “A3 form” to suggest an improvement and seek approval.
  • Error-proofing or poka-yoke. In Lean, poka yoke is altering a process so that mistakes cannot be made. For example, organizations may configure machinery so that a part can only fit into a machine in one way, preventing mistakes from occurring because parts were loaded improperly. Error-proofing also works to ensure that any mistakes that were made are corrected and processes are altered so these mistakes cannot be repeated. Traditional project management attempts to do so with lessons learned documents and by retaining project documentation for future reference. But why wait? You risk that the mistake is simply repeated. Use the project management tools of the change control process and change control board to standardize a repaired process before the project is complete.
  • System optimization. Lean methodlogies look to optimize work throughout the system, rather than just in individual cells or work areas. This system-wide approach ensures that improvments made in one area do not adversely affect work in other areas.
  • The gemba walk. “Gemba” is a Japanese word meaning, roughly, “the real place,” referring to where work is done. A manager or project manager physically walks the value stream and engages the workers. The manager asks about progress, identifies any problems early that need intervention, and offers praise where appropriate. The manager goes to the worker, rather than calling the worker to a meeting, which ensures that the work continues and the worker feels valued. Compare that to “open door policies” of which few workers take advantage, or to lengthy and probably unnecessary team meetings or report preparation.


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