What Is Lean Project Management Methodology & Its Principles

Last Updated:Thursday, January 25, 2024

So you’ve found yourself wondering: What is lean project management methodology? You’ve certainly come to the right article.

Here we’ll cover the definition of lean PM, its principles and workflows, and offer some examples of when to use it. We’ll also compare lean methods to more traditional ones on one hand, and to agile methodologies on the other. Avanti!


What is lean project management?

So what is a lean project, and how are lean PM methods applied? Why are they effective? 

To begin, a lean project is one that focuses on demand rather than supply. This means it is always in response to a customer or stakeholder’s needs or demands, and produces and delivers in a just-in-time manner.

Perhaps you’re pondering the more general question: what is project management writ large? If so, be sure to take a peek at our explainer article, then read on below.

Lean PM emphasizes reducing waste, and cutting out anything that does not add value, either to the project process, product, or for the end user or customer. The lean system identifies several types of waste, calling it the 3M system based on the original Japanese terms: Muda, Mura, Muri.

  • Muda refers to wasted time and effort on the part of the project team. This can mean tasks that do not add any value to the end product, or other inefficiencies in the workflow. Work that does not add value often leads to wasteful rework which should be rooted out.

  • Mura is all about wasteful production processes, or operational unevenness. This might sound similar to Muda but with key differences. It’s more closely associated with resource management and time management than mere effort and helps reduce lead times.

  • Muri, the final item in the 3M term, speaks to the idea of waste created by overproduction, the overuse of machines, equipment and labor, and general over-processing which in the end does not add value to the results.

Another definition of lean PM must make mention of the Japanese concept of Kaizen, otherwise known as continuous improvement. This is one way that lean PM is similar to agile project management.

One way that the lean system differs from an agile approach, however, has to do with their main areas of use. Lean PM is mostly about manufacturing, while agile PM is more closely associated with software development. 

In software development, there is more room for research and development, trial and error, and often the ultimate piece of software as a product is a bit more open to possibilities. 

With the lean system, however, one often has a more clear and specific idea of the end product as per the customer’s requirements. That’s opposed to other project management methodologies where iterative approaches and experimentation are key.

When is the lean pm methodology appropriate?

Lean PM is appropriate when you want to cut waste and focus on value and functionality. For this reason, as noted above, it’s not so ideal for creative, iterative, and/or ideational approaches. It’s about product improvement and cutting fat from the bone. 


Lean project management principles

In this section we will look at the 5 main lean principles. Principles are less about steps and stages which guide the project, and more about higher-level concepts which should be kept in mind throughout the project lifecycle. 

However, when it comes to product development, lean project teams can use these core principles in a linear order. Such principles of lean project management, which descend from lean manufacturing, will always help improve your team’s workflow and increase customer satisfaction.

1. Value: Identify and prioritize it

The first lean project management principle is all about customer value, since every project has as its ultimate project goal delivering and increasing value for the end user, stakeholder or customer. The product backlog often lays out early what kind of value and functionality the customer expects. This principle of the lean approach guides us to think along the lines of imagining the customer’s needs and pain points and how to solve their problems. Following your customer requirements with a value-centric lean approach results in high levels of customer loyalty.

2. Value stream: Visualize and map it

The second principle for lean PM centers on what is called value stream mapping, or VPM. Value stream mapping is like a roadmap which helps project managers and team members visualize and streamline the entire project and all its stages, often using workflow visualizations. Gantt charts can also be employed here to help optimize the lifecycle with project milestones as ways to gauge progress. Understanding your value flow is crucial because it allows the team to spot different types of waste in areas like time, money or resources, and therefore allows the team to think about ways to reduce or eliminate waste and other bottlenecks which may slow down or overburden your team. 

3. Flow: Increase throughput and eliminate waste

This principle of the lean approach is all about workflows, or simply continuous flow. It follows very closely from the previous principle of value mapping where the team visualized pain points and waste. 

Flow emphasizes the importance of making a concrete plan to cut down on as much process or material waste as possible. 

This lean principle is where you think about managing process throughput and creating improvement plans that help the team understand the future state of a project process. The PDCA system is big in this principle of the project management process, which stands for: plan, do, check, act.

4. Pull: Following the customer’s demands

When it comes to lean PM, the fourth principle talks about moving away from a push system to a pull system. What this means is that work processes should be initiated based on the customer’s demands, that is, the customer pulls the work towards them. As opposed to making products one hopes to sell, in this case, the principle is making products others have already signaled they will buy. 

A big part of managing this principle successfully is implementing WIP limits, or work in progress limits. The pull system is also related to the just-in-time system of manufacturing.

5. Improvement: Continuous and with feedback

Continuous improvement is the final major principle of lean project management, and this is where the lean approach is incredibly similar to agile methodologies. As you know, agile project management relies on iterations and deliverables, and so does lean thinking. 

When it comes to process improvement, the lean approach requires regular feedback from the team, stakeholders and customers, and it’s key to use this feedback to always improve both the process and the end product. Making continuous improvements throughout the project lifecycle is one way to nearing the perfect completion of a project.


How and when was lean project management methodology created?

There is a very interesting history to the lean project methodology. It starts, in all places, in the land of the rising sun: Japan. Having emerged from the ruinous second world war as a manufacturing powerhouse thanks in no small part to the US-led Marshall Plan, the Japanese were beginning to rethink more traditional western manufacturing methodologies. 

This is why lean project management has its roots in industrial manufacturing, specifically the automobile industry, with one company name standing out: Toyota. 

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Toyota production system, or TPS as it was known, was being refined. TPS existed before anyone actually dubbed it ‘lean.’ The term ‘lean’ was introduced in the 1980s, and was defined by the PMI (Project Management Institute) as a method “to provide what is needed, when it is needed, with the minimum amount of materials, equipment, labor, and space.” 

Over the years, the lean methodology spawned methods and other systems similar to both lean and agile PM, for example, the lean six sigma system.  


How does a lean project plan work?

As mentioned above in the section on lean principles, the lean system works according to PDCA, or plan, do, check, act. Another term for this system of workflow is the Deming Cycle, named after Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Here's a fuller breakdown of the Deming Cycle:

1. Plan

Planning means taking a close look at your workflow. First priority should include identifying problems that need solutions, or areas which need improvement.

2. Do

The doing part of the lean workflow cycle is less about execution and more about gathering and analyzing data. Data is the key to finding solutions. What’s more, the team member collaboration structure should be considered at this stage.

3. Check

Once your lean team has properly initiated doing their tasks in the project, it is central to keep monitoring progress. The idea is to measure whether your proposed solutions are truly effective and how well project expectations are matching up with results. Here is also where you seek out root causes to problems so that you are not merely repairing them but rooting them out.

4. Act

Finally, it is time for action. Once you’ve planned, done and checked, you are ready to act upon all the information and feedback gathered in the early parts of the life cycle. Because this is a circular learning process, there will always be points in the project where you must take what you’ve learned and put it into practice. 


Lean project management examples

There are many great uses of lean projects. Here are some examples of how and when to use lean project management.

In the construction industry

Lean PM is superior to agile PM when it comes to construction projects and other lean manufacturing projects. This is because there is often a much clearer set of customer’s requirements for the final product. Additionally, construction projects must often be done in stages and include many task dependencies.

Launching a website

When designing and building a website for a client, and not just for yourself, you must keep in mind customer satisfaction from the outset. To do this, you want to deliver the final website as quickly as possible and with as little waste in terms of money or resources as possible. Still,  lean methods can allow the development team to respond to customer changes in real-time in ways that more traditional methods cannot.


Lean program management vs traditional processes

Traditional project management is often associated with large manufacturing processes. One of the best ways to compare the traditional approach to the lean approach is by comparing American vs Japanese car manufacturing ideologies. The Ford system was traditional, with huge inventories and massively scaled-up production to keep costs low. Stages and dependencies are also important to respect in the traditional method.

Lean follows the Toyota system of just-in-time production. It focuses on keeping the process light and nimble, following the customer’s demands for added value at every step of the project, and always looking for ways to cut waste and streamline the process.


Which lean project management tools should you use?

When it comes to lean project management tools, you have some options, and perhaps the best of all is a Kanban board. The Kanban system is a simple way to organize tasks with WIP limits. Kanban boards are also ideal for implementing the pull system, where tasks are pulled from the Kanban board when they need to get done.

There’s also a great range of lean project management software to choose from. 

Some top PM apps include Wrike, Basecamp, and Teamwork. The multi-faceted Wrike does double duty as a work management tool. If you prioritize communication, then Basecamp might be worth a look. Meanwhile Teamwork emphasizes task and resource management.

Of course, there are many more apps targeting specific niches, and so plenty more worth checking out. 

Otherwise, there are often great lean PM integrations with your regular business SaaS, like your CRM. You can check out our project management tools comparison to learn more about that.

What are project roll ups in lean PM

So what is a roll up project lean management-wise? Also spaced and styled out as rollup or roll-up project in lean, this is simply a list of total values associated with the project. It lets project managers see the total duration and costs associated with each task.


Our conclusion

This wraps up our article about all things lean and mean when it comes to helping teams optimize project management. To sum up, it ain’t exactly agile, but it’s hardly trad. 

Lean PM might just be the perfect system for you. 

Though of course, you can feel free to mix up its tenets with other similar PM systems, like lean six sigma or waterfall project management according to what the needs of your situation will dictate.