How to Get Started with Lean Project Management
Skip to content

How to Get Started with Lean Project Management

Rose Keefe Rose Keefe Last Updated:

Lean project management sounds like a brand-new concept when in actuality it’s been around for over 40 years. Until the 1990s, however, it was mostly applied in the manufacturing industry. Then it slowly took hold in construction projects. Now, fortunately for project managers across all sectors, the lean philosophy is more widespread and making a difference in all sectors that value customer service.

Origin of the Lean Philosophy

After the oil embargo hit in 1973, the Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan dealt with the sudden scarcity of resources by emphasizing three key areas in its operations strategy.

  • Continuous worker improvement
  • Eliminating inefficiencies in the manufacturing process
  • Reducing waste in the workspace

This management philosophy, known as the Toyota Production System (TPS), improved the customer experience because:

  • Workers were now better at their jobs, creating quality output without defects.
  • Anything that did not add value was reduced or eliminated, which streamlined both production and costs.
  • An ‘on-demand’ production system cut the time and expense of producing and maintaining inventory.

By taking an unprecedented step from mass to lean production, Toyota saw its manufacturing costs and lead time go down, and product quality and customer satisfaction go up. The result was a triumphant rise from smaller manufacturer to the world’s largest automaker.

The Many Faces of Lean

When applied to project management, the lean philosophy makes it possible to use fewer resources to create more value for clients. There are different approaches, but the most common ones are:

  • Deming Cycle (PDCA)
  • Kanban
  • Lean Six Sigma (DMEDI)

These three lean methodologies, all of which emphasize quality and efficiency, are explained below.

Deming Cycle (PDCA)

Created by W. Edwards Deming, author of management guide Out of the Crisis, the Deming Cycle applies four specific phases to obtain consistent results. They are:

  • Plan: Identify the problem or challenge and analyze it.
  • Do:  Propose solutions to any anticipated problems.
  • Check: Monitor the quality and effectiveness of all solutions and improve when necessary
  • Act:  Carry out the updated solutions

The Deming Cycle is particularly useful for manufacturing and construction projects because both industries follow a systemic production cycle. There is always an opportunity to learn from mistakes and develop safeguards to prevent them from happening again.

lean project management for construction


Kanban is Japanese for ‘card’ or ‘visual signal’. It uses compelling visual cues and representations to support better communication and collaboration on work streams during all phases of a project. Kanban also limits waste and improves value to clients by standardizing all workflows and eliminating guesswork.

When used in lean project management, the Kanban system categorizes each phase as one of the following:

  • To Do
  • Doing (in progress)
  • Done

Tasks are typically assigned using project management software that allows managers and team members to tag each change in task status. Kanban boards (Trello is a great example) are especially useful when reviewing a team’s current workload because they enable managers to reasonably estimate the effects that additional tasks would have on productivity.

Lean Six Sigma (DMEDI)

Lean Six Sigma focuses on identifying the source of project management problems and eliminating waste of both time and resources. It has five phases, which are explained below.

  • Define the scope of the project, identify the value for the client, and set goals.
  • Measure how success will be determined throughout all phases of the project
  • Explore new ways of improving the process
  • Develop a project plan after assessing all requirements
  • Implement the plan to accomplish objectives

Lean Six Sigma project management tools include:

  • Value mapping to visualize the project lifecycle from beginning to end
  • Analyzing causes to identify problems and their symptoms
  • Statistical process control charts to review data
  • Gantt charts and other graphs to track and represent progress

Large-scale industrial projects often use Six Sigma manufacturing processes to identify and remove causes of production defects as well as measure overall team effectiveness.

[bctt tweet=”Plan. Do. Check. Act. Go lean or go home with these actionable insights” username=”toggl plan”]

Implementing Lean Project Management

If you and your current team have never used lean principles before, a learning and adjustment period is inevitable but it doesn’t have to cost money or affect the project deadline. Here are some implementation strategies.

  • Tell it to the team. Before implementing any new methodology, you have to introduce it to your team and explain its benefits. Education and empowerment are core lean concepts. Once the team understands the value of the new approach, they will, individually and as a group, strive to make it work.
  • Keep the team engaged. Give everyone a voice on how new solutions should be implemented and be open to feedback on whether or not a particular system is working. Make sure everyone understands that their input is important and they have the authority to identify possible quality issues.
  • Identify problems in your current process. Growth is the result of lessons learned. Review past projects and identify ways that you can improve efficiency and eradicate waste.
  • Think macro, not micro. Don’t take a task by task approach. Instead, focus on improving your entire project management plan, especially if you have a decent-sized team. As you make changes, look for innovative new processes to add.
  • Make communication as effective as possible. Open dialogue between all stakeholders is one of the hallmarks of a well-run project. Software like Toggl Plan has tools and charts that can keep everyone on the same page.
  • Divide the workload evenly. If any project stakeholders are overburdened, they can burn out and fail to add quality. Remember that everyone on the team is there because their skills give them a particular role to play. Assign tasks based on a reasonable workload and always aim for quality or quantity.
  • Adopt a ‘fix it’ culture. A team that learns from past mistakes and is always ready to fix new ones is in an excellent position to deliver a quality product and keep clients happy. Mistakes are not the issue: it’s what you do afterward that counts.

Lean project management is about delivering usable value to clients, not complying with arbitrary time and cost parameters. It’s time to take a cue from the manufacturing industry and make value the ultimate goal of every project you manage.

Rose Keefe

Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.

Join 30,000+ subscribers getting the best tips on productivity, work management, hiring and more!

We promise we won't spam you and you can unsubscribe anytime.