Lean in Project Management

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The article handles the topic of lean management within project management. Lean management has become a significant topic within management. As it started out to only affect manufacturing process and eliminate waste when producing products, Lean nowadays is applied throughout all departments in a company in order to eliminate as much waste as possible and thus increase return on investment. Therefore Lean can also be applied in Project Management.

This article will give an overview of applicable lean methods for project management looking at the project management process and its elements. While creating the process Lean thinking has to be incorporated in the process planning in order to make it possible to act lean when executing the process. Different literature for the topic will be reviewed. In the end applicability and limitations to the topic will be given.


Lean thinking

Toyota is the first word that usually comes to people’s minds when talking about “Lean”. Taiichi Ohno who developed the Toyota Production System is considered the founder of Lean manufacturing.[1] He was the first one to consistently and thoroughly eliminate waste and thus accelerate production efficiency. Lean manufacturing relies on 5 key principles which are:[1]

  • Identify and define value;
  • Identify and map the value stream;
  • Create Flow;
  • Establish Pull;
  • Pursuit perfection.

Within these principles the focus lies on eliminating waste. The different types of waste, called Muda in Japanese, which can occur were defined by Womack and Jones[2]:

  • Defects in products;
  • Overproduction of items no one wants;
  • Inventory waiting to be processed;
  • Unneeded processing;
  • Unnecessary transport of goods;
  • People waiting for input to work on;
  • Design of goods and services that do not satisfy customer needs.

Lean manufacturing’s core issue is to identify and reduce waste and become more effective and efficient. Cusumano and Nobeoka[3] start to extend Lean ideas to multiple project systems. Projects should be linked strategically through product portfolio planning, technologically through the design of common core components and organizationally through overlapping the responsibilities of project managers which is the beginning of thinking about Lean Project Management.

Lean Project Management

Lean tries to improve established methods and standards in project management. There is no one way definition of how a project can be made Lean but the existing methods are a support to develop Lean Project Management. [4] Lean Management is based on Quality Management which has been a tool for Project Management already.

Lean Project Management is trying to optimize the process by reducing the non-value adding activities and optimizing the value adding ones. [5] Usually there are more non-value adding activities than value adding, this moves the focus from the optimization of the value generation to the reduction of waste. Looking at the key principles of Lean, waste is usually defined as waiting time. Waiting in project based productions or enterprises does not primarily have to be a disadvantage. Buffers, for example, were found to rather support Project Management than to hold up the project. [5]

Reusch[4] expanded the 5 key principles of Lean and adjusted them to Lean Project Management. The key principles for Lean Project Management were identified as:

  • Specify what creates value from the customer´s perspective;
  • Identify all the steps along the process chain;
  • Make those processes flow;
  • Identify waste – based upon needs and expectations of customers;
  • Eliminate waste – based upon needs and expectations of customers;
  • Make only what is pulled by the customer;
  • Strive for perfection by continually removing wastes;
  • Amplify learning;
  • Make decisions at the right time;
  • Empower the team;
  • build integrity;
  • See the whole.

Further Reusch identified examples of waste in projects in relation to the categories of waste introduced above. The results are shown below.

Waste in Lean Project Management
Waste type in projects Cause
Lack of effectiveness in projects Ignoring available products services standards, ignoring innovations
Lack of efficiency Communication problems, lack of information, ignoring information, missing skills, weak organization (waste of time in meetings, needless meetings), collecting redundant or useless information, not considering standards
Waiting Communication problems, lack of information, lack of resources
Over-production in projects Wrong definition of requirements, overlapping and not harmonized processes
Rework Wrong specifications, missing competencies, insufficient or not effective control
Motion Lack of resources
Over processing Overburden of regulations
Inventory related waste Planning errors, lack of resources
Transport related waste Planning errors, lack of resources

These waste types have to be identified alongside the process of Project Management. The standard process of project management IS defined by PMI (Project Management Institute) in their Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).[6] The process is:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Execution
  • Closing
  • Monitoring and Controlling

The PMI has also defined nine knowledge areas for project management which are crucial for a successful delivery of a project. These knowledge areas include Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human resources, Communication, Risk, and Procurement. Looking at the process and knowledge areas, Lean Project Management has to focus on eliminating waste within these areas. Leach[1] narrowed this thinking down by saying that “each task is a process”. Each process requires inputs and outputs. The outputs then go to the successor and the sum of them create the project result. Waste has to be eliminated in the entire process, in each task and among the interfaces of input and output.

As Lean Project Management is a broad topic and different interpretations for “How to make a project more lean” exist, this article focuses on Lean Project Management identified by Lawrence Leach who adapted PMI standards and Lean Thinking to Project Management in order to develop eight principles which can support a project leader or organization on its way to eliminating waste.

Lean Project Management by Leach

Leach[1] introduced 8 principles which can lead to successful project results by using lean tools and critical chain management. A short overview of each step will be given below. 8 Principles by Leach.png

The relay race theory

What is a relay race

The relay race and Lean Project Management




Annotated Bibliography


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Leach, L. P. (2005) “Lean Project Management: Eight Principles for Success. Combining Critical Chain Project Management [CCPM] and Lean tools to accelerate project results” Boise, Idaho.
  2. Womak, J., Jones, D. (1996) “Lean thinking: Banish waste and create wealth in your corporation” New York. Simon and Schuster.
  3. Cusumano, Nobeoka (1998) “Thinking beyond Lean” New York, The Free Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Reusch, P. J. A., Reusch, P. (2013) “How to develop Lean Project Management?” The 7th IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Data Acquisition and Advanced Systems. Berlin, Germany.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bertelsen, S. „Bridging the gaps – towards a comprehensive understanding of Lean Construction” The international Group for Lean Production.
  6. PMI. (2004) „A guide to the project Management Body of Knowledge, Third Edition.” Newton Square, PA, PMI.
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