Lean as a project management tool

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Developed by Rasmus Sorth-Olsen

Almost, every production- and service companies are being face with projects in their daily routine. This could be a new product being introduced or maybe a team leader has to optimize a production line in order to meet the new forecasts. Many different types of tools, methods and systems can be use, In order to manage such projects. Some of the best project management tools can be found in the Lean toolbox. The Lean concept contains several tools that can be applied in different ways and –situations. It would often be a good idea for a company to use Lean as project management tool, in order to maintain their competitiveness.

Many experts have been writing about Lean but only a few of these experts have emphasized what Lean as a project management tool actually is, how it’s applied and why many companies see more improvement when using Lean instead of other project management tools. This article will therefor focus on these three important questions. The article will also be about the fundamental principles in the philosophy of Lean, and which Lean tools would be sound to use in a given situation. However, Lean do also have some disadvantages as a project management tool. Lean can even be ineffective and destructive compared to other project management tools, in some cases. The theory will be supported by several sources throughout the article. Finally, the discussion will take a look at pros and cons when using Lean as a project management tool.



The following section is going to explain the history behind Lean as a project management tool.

In the 1930’ies, a man called Taiichi Ohno invented a series of management tools. One of these tools was Toyota Production System (TPS)[1]. TPS is a management philosophy, which consisted of several tools, which have been added and developed continuing to the toolbox. In short, TPS is focusing on optimizing the flow throughout the whole production process and meet the costumers needs. However, it was only in the 1990’ies that this philosophy were given the name Lean. John Kraficit, James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos were the first ones who used the term, when they described the Japanese production theories in the book “The Machine, That Changed The World”[2]. An example of one of these theories, presented in the book, was Just In Time (JIT), which almost every production- and service companies are using nowadays. Other famous Lean tools are The A3 report, SMED, 5S, Gemba, Kaizen Event and Kanban.

So far, Toyota holds the title of being the world leading company when it comes to Lean, with the TPS. There has been a massive request on the Lean project management tools, since the 1990’ies and this is why countless of books and video guides have been made about the Lean philosophy and the Lean tools.

Nowadays, the Lean tools aren’t just used by production companies. Managers and leaders in the service sector, the pharmaceutical industry, the construction industry and many more, are also using the Lean tools, even for administrational purposes.

The Lean structure

Figure 1: The five Lean principles, Source: Sorth-Olsen, Rasmus (user: Sorth90)

The five Lean principles are the core structure in the Lean philosophy and they are an essential part of every Lean system. This is why the project manager has to focus on implementing the five Lean principles in every Lean project and – improvement.

When using Lean as a project management tool, the culture is in the focus and not the “just” the implementation of a random group of Lean tools.

The companies, which are using Lean in their projects, will try to meet the five Lean principles, listed below[3].

  1. This step is about identifying who the costumer is and which activities are adding value to the final product from his point of view. It is therefore an essential part of this step, to sort-out the customers wishes and needs. This is why it’s important to ask the customer about his expectations to the final product. You can also say that the product, which the customer receives, has to fulfill the 7 r’s of logistics: right product, right place, right price, right customer, right condition, right time and right quality[4]. The reason why the customer has to be involved in the process is because, only the customer know what value actually is to the customer. All activities within the production have to be reviewed in order to detect what the customer would see as waste. This is called “Muda” in the Lean philosophy. This will also make the production more flexible and create a much better flow in the production process. It is important to notice that this customer can also be an internal customer within the same company, if the product has to go through department/production to another.
  2. When identifying the value stream, it’s important see on the whole picture. This will give you a better overview when going through all the steps and make it easier to tell value from waste. The whole value stream should be taken into an account when doing optimizations.
  3. Flow is when the product and the information only go through value adding activities in a continuously movement. The flow is being applied by removing all waste within the value stream.
  4. The process should only start when the customer gives you the demand for the product. It would therefore be a sound idea to implement a pull-system, where the activities only start when the successor activity gives a signal. This way, no products are being brought or produced, just to fill up the inventory.
  5. The main goal in the Lean-system is to remove waste. However, there will always be waste in a production and it is therefore important to keep improving and look for waste. This culture of continuously improvement is called Kaizen. In Japanese, Kai means change and Zen means for the better. To be able to keep improving is the key factor in maintaining competitiveness.

What is Lean as a project management tool?

Lean as a project management tool, is a toolbox with several tools that can be applied and be combined in many different ways. This is why you do not have a fixed template for every single task or problem, when using Lean as a project management tool.

The Lean tools are now a common part of the project management toolbox. The idea is to streamline the production and projects, as well as improve the quality on the output. In modern companies, both large and small improvements are being implemented on a frequent basis through Lean. This is why the project manager has to be ready to constantly react and adapt to the changes. Michael and Freddy Ballé explains this in the book “The Lean Manager”[5]. Michael and Freddy Ballé focus on how Lean tools and the Lean philosophy can improve the leaders and especially the result of the project leaders. Michael and Freddy Ballé splits project management into the following parts:

  • Customers First
  • Everybody, Every Day
  • Go and See
  • Managing Means Improving
  • Clear Direction
  • Teamwork
  • Mutual Trust
  • Creating Value

Like mentioned in the five Lean principles, Michael and Freddy Ballé describe the importance of focusing in the customer’s desire and like in the five Lean principles, this customer could be an internal customer within the same company. By taking the next person into an account, when handling over a product, the flow throughout the whole process gets streamlined and you’ll create a much better overall result.

All project members have to be involved and participate actively on a daily basis, doing the project, in order to achieve the best possible project output.

As a project leader, it is important to get out of the office. You should always be in contact with the workers and always observe the production process, as a project manager. The people with the knowledge to improve the process are the people who are actually working with the process.

It is important to make sure everybody involved in project actually wants do the project, but it is more important to make sure the management is on board. When first the management pushes forward the project, all employees will slowly adapt to the changes.

The project manager needs to manage the project with clear outlined instructions before, doing and after the project, to secure a common goal amongst the employees.

Teamwork is the key when it comes to doing a project. All people involved in the project needs to work together as a team and aim for a common goal as a unit.

It is important to secure a mutual trust between the project group and the project manager, but also amongst the project group members. This is because people tent to keep information to themselves if they do not trust the people around them.

Michael and Freddy Ballé’s book “The Lean Manager”, also supports the five Lean principles theory, by describing how a manager should always focus on adding value to the project.

How can Lean be use as a project management tool?

As explained in the previous section, the key factor to success, when doing a project, is having a visible project manager doing the start-up phase, the execution phase and the closing phase. This means that the project manager has to participate actively in the project and not just do planning and other managerial tasks in his office. The visible project management style is called Gemba in the Lean philosophy and has been outlined by Jim Womack in the book “Gemba Walks”[6]. Jim Womack’s book contains many customized Gemba tools which makes it easy to choose a specific Lean tool for any given problem. Jim Womack describe the project managers use of project frames, respect for people, PDCA, A3, “the work of management” and Lean management, just to name a few.

As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to set-up a fixed template, when using Lean, but the project manager will always have to follow the five processes below:

  1. Start project
  2. Plan project
  3. Execute project
  4. Controlling project
  5. Close project

It is essential to specify how to go from one process to the next. A project manager can usually use these five steps, even though projects can vary in many different ways.

The five processes will now be outlined:

1. Start project

The project manager will always try to estimate weather the project would be profitable or not, before starting the project.

2. Plan project
Figure 2: The Quality, Cost and Delivery triangle, Source: Sorth-Olsen, Rasmus (user: Sorth90)

Second step in the process is project planning. The main purpose of project planning is to make sure all stakeholder will be pleased. Common tools used in this step are The Gantt Chart and the Quality, Cost and Delivery (QCD) triangle[7]. A detailed project plan, with all the information about the necessary resources, will make it easy for the company to structure all its projects. The project planning can also guide the project manager throughout the project and make sure he meets the decided milestones and deadlines.

When the project planner composes the project plan, he needs to include the following parts:

  • Estimate the number of project resources
  • Define the quality, cost and delivery
  • Forecast and order raw materials according to the expected delivery
  • Predict project star-up date and deadline
  • Make sure that you will be visible as a project leader during the project
  • Make sure to initiate all necessary start-up activities at the right time
  • Decide appropriate milestones for the project

3. Execute project

The third step in the process is executing the project and especially the managerial part in this state of the project. Doing the execution phase, the project manager needs to monitor the project development, make sure the project expectations are being met, keep track of the task priorities and keep track of how much time is spend on each task. These responsibilities are a very essential part of the project management, because they make sure the project follows the project plan. When doing a project you will meet many obstacles, which will force you to take directive actions. However, if you then diverge too much from the original project plan, you will never reach the project goal and the whole project will then be a waste of time and resources. This step is where being a visible project manager pays off.

Figure 3: The PDCA-cycle, Source: Sorth-Olsen, Rasmus (user: Sorth90)

In his book “Toyota Kata”[8] Mike Rother describes how to lead, manage and develop your people doing the execution of a project. The term Kata originates from the Lean term Kaizen. The definitions of Kaizen is continuously improvement. Kata varies from this definition, by not just focusing on doing the improvements, but also on how to do the improvement the right way. The project manager has to lead and develop the employees to do the project task themselves as the project goes on, when doing a Kata project. The project lead needs to focus on facilitating the Kata meetings and make the employees do the work tasks. This way the employees will participate and take ownership in the project. The employees will then slowly assume the responsibility and take actions themselves if problems with the project or the equipment should occur. It can sometimes be difficult to see how the project can reach its goal doing the initiation of the project. However, many Lean tools can assist the project manager in reaching the project goal along the way. One of these tools is the PDCA-cycle.

  • Plan
  • Do
  • Check
  • Act

The project as a whole will contain several subtasks, which all have to go through the PDCA-cycle process. The participants will first develop a plan on how to do the subtask and then execute it. When the subtask has been executed the participants needs to follow-up on the result. If the result is not satisfying, they will take corrective actions on the matter medially. If the result still is not good enough, they will go through the process again and so on.

Lean as a project management tool deals with visualization, by making the project goal and status visible to all. A whiteboard can be used for this purpose. The whiteboard has to be accessible to all and if possible, be located in the middle of the project area. If the project is attached to a specific machine, it will be sound to locate it here. This way everybody can see the information about the project. This can be a significant factor to some of the participants in the project. This way their work are being presented to all the other employees, which can motivate some people.

4. Controlling project

Doing- and after the execution of the project processes, the projects are being monitored. This is to ensure the continuously improvement culture of Kaizen. Like in the Kata projects, whiteboards can be used to structure and implement improvements. Use of this tool has shown great improvement. The users have experienced a 4 times higher productivity and a 12 times better quality of the output[9]. A project manager using the Kaizen principles can improve the project output in the short run. In the long run, the project leader can use the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to monitor the project status. The KPI’s is an efficient tool that tells the user weather the task has been accomplished, indicated by green, or have not been accomplished, indicated by red. This way the project manager, the stakeholder and the employees can all see what still needs to be done.

5. Close project

In the final part of the project, it is necessary to make sure all employees are informed about how to take over the project responsibility tasks when the project has been closed down as a project. The project leader needs to make sure all parts of the project has been documented, before the project gets closed. Sharing knowledge is an essential factor in Lean as a project management tool. This way, the work in similar future project, will be easier. Experience needs to be shared to avoid storing all knowhow in the head of the project leader. Otherwise, all knowhow will be lost if the project leader decides to quite.

Why use Lean as a project management tool?

Lean are used as a project management tool to continuously improve the project and to achieve highly successful results in both the short and the long run. This makes it attractive for modern project managers to use. The philosophy also ensures a streamlined uniformity across the company, because all the projects are being performed the same way. The resources will be differentiated amongst the projects, but the framework is still the same. The philosophy will also make it easy for the project manager to start-up a new project. The project leader will then have several tools to execute and close the project.


Projects are becoming more and more complex nowadays. However, all accessible resources are often constrained or lowered, which makes it hard to achieve the project goals. The Lean philosophy is then used for systematization of the project processes and manage the employees. This article stress the importance of Lean as a managerial philosophy in companies with numerous employees spread across several projects. However, Lean is not necessarily suitable for all projects. In some cases, more traditional project management styles are to be preferred. Here is a traditional style often more simple and efficient, if the project magnitude is low and only small obstacles occur.


  1. Ohno, Taiichi: Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production: Kindle Edition. Norman Bodek.
  2. Kraficit, John, Womack, James P., Jones, Daniel T., and Roos, Daniel: The Machine, That Changed The World: First Edition. Copyrighted Material.
  3. [http://www.lean.org/WhatsLean/Principles.cfm] Principles of Lean. Visit 06.09.2015
  4. [http://logisticssupplychainmanagement.blogspot.dk/2008/09/scm-goals-seven-rights.html] The 7 r’s of logistics. Visit 13.09.2015
  5. Ballé, Michael and Ballé, Freddy: The Lean Manager: 1. edition. Jeffrey K. Liker, 2011.
  6. Womack, Jim: Gemba Walks: 1. edition. John Shook, 2011.
  7. [http://www.velaction.com/qdc-quality-delivery-cost/] The Quality, Cost and Delivery triangle. Visit 20.09.2015
  8. Rother, Mike: Toyota Kata: 1. edition. Mc Graw Hill, 2010.
  9. Medina, Ángel: Agile Kaizen: Managing Continuous Improvement Far Beyond Retrospectives: Springer, 2014.
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