Should project managers be lean, or agile?

Nov 17, 2017 | projects in plain english

by Steve Tofts

There’s no reason why a project shouldn’t be both lean and agile; both concepts come from the same place.

Lean thinking

Lean thinking originated in an MIT study of the Japanese motor industry, in particular Toyota, in the final quarter of the 20th century. The aim is to create an organisation that aligns customer satisfaction with employee satisfaction and that offers high-value products while minimising waste. Higher value plus reduced waste equals the holy grail of the 21st century – sustainability. Lean thinking moved out of the manufacturing environment and developed into a business methodology that focuses on organising human activities to deliver more benefits to society while reducing the cost to individuals, organisations and the environment. It’s now used by organisations in all industry sectors that want to operate more sustainably. Lean project management is a relatively late development of this core thinking.

The Agile Manifesto

Many of the concepts that formed the original lean thinking were picked up by a group of software developers at the beginning of this century. They were frustrated by an approach to project planning that they called waterfall. The waterfall method establishes fixed milestones in a project timeline. Typically, these milestones require some kind of approval before the project can proceed. For example, design work could not begin until the system specification had been agreed; a system could not be tested until all its functions had been developed. The Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, drew on some of the ideas at the heart of lean thinking. In particular, it focused on the idea of products delivering value, rather than mere functionality. As it developed further, agile project management embraced some of the detail in lean thinking as well as its broad concepts. Techniques such as Kanban and visualisation are equally familiar to both the lean and agile communities.

People not processes

Perhaps most importantly, both lean and agile place more emphasis on people rather than systems or processes. And this is what makes both of them so relevant to project management. Regardless of their size or industry sector, projects are essentially about people; the people who pay for them, the people who use the end product and the people who deliver those products. For that reason alone, I think it’s essential that today’s project managers are able to work in both a lean and an agile way. This is especially true if we want to innovate and respond to rapidly changing requirements.

Traditional approaches

So is there still a place for more traditional approaches to project management, those based on the PMBOK or PRINCE2 for example? Well, yes there is. Both lean and agile thinking rely on an underlying framework of control. This allows a project to respond appropriately if it is not delivering value or using resources efficiently. 

The best of both worlds?

Approaches like PRINCE2 Agile® are brave attempts to offer the best of both worlds. This hybrid approach offers an effective set of controls within which the creativity that agile thinking encourages is able to flourish. Unlike many hybrids the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts. It deserves to succeed.  

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