Monday, July 13, 2009

Defining the Lean Project Manager

I've met some good project managers, and some bad project managers. I think we all have. I've met some project managers who know a thing or two about lean thinking, and some who have never and will never make any attempt to learn about it. For the most part, I think the project management body of knowledge lacks a lot in terms of being a lean methodology, so it's natural for most project managers to lack knowledge of lean principles. The same goes for most types of managers. For lean project management to spread, we need to develop PM's who display the attributes and behaviors of a lean thinker.

So, what makes a Lean Project Manager?

While I've yet to achieve a level of understanding sufficient to call myself a Lean Project Manager, I do have some thoughts on the attributes that I need to attain to become one some day. Here goes:
  1. Communicator...This doesn't apply just to lean project managers; this is a prerequisite for all project managers. Written or verbal, formal or informal, one-on-one or in front of a group; PM's have to be able to communicate.
  2. Learner...This is also sort of inherent in the project management profession. Because we can be leading projects across a wide range of fields, we have to be quick learners if we want to be able to understand what our subject-matter experts are saying. We don't have to be experts in every field, but we have to be able to understand enough to manage the projects. Lean PM's take it to another level. A true Lean PM will make continuous learning a standard part of their work, not something to do in their spare time or accidentally. Establishing goals for self-development and then creating a strategic plan for achieving that goal is Lean PM behavior.
  3. Socratic Teacher...I think this is a big departure from standard project management. Most PM's tend to focus on solving problems as quick as possible, and don't take the time to use problems as learning opportunities. The Lean PM is always looking for learning moments with his project team. These moments don't occur in classrooms, but out where the work is being performed. The Lean PM doesn't teach by telling team members why problems occurred and how to fix them, but by asking elegant, insightful questions that force the team members to develop a strong understanding of the problem at hand. By doing this, the Socratic Teacher not only helps the team identify countermeasures to its problems, but also teaches it to be a self-reliant, self-adapting, problem-solving team.
  4. Systems Thinker...Again, this is an area where I think lean project management departs from mainstream project management. Most PM's tend to view projects as discrete packets of work that can be scheduled, delegated, measured, and completed by individuals or teams. The strong emphasis on the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) as the primary planning tool is evidence of the way the project management community views work production. In the manufacturing operations world, ERP systems kind of perform the same function. This view on operations management stems from an erroneous assumption that a top-down push planning approach is capable of accurately predicting how the work will flow. A Lean PM does not try to control work through top-down planning. A Lean PM thinks in terms of self-sufficient systems that can rapidly adapt to the constantly changing conditions on the ground. The people closest to the work have the best shot at predicting the work flow, so Lean PM's focus on creating systems composed of well-trained, capable people performing well-refined, stable processes.
  5. Experimenter...Even well-oiled machines can become obsolete. For that reason, Lean PM's need to constantly tinker with their systems and encourage their team members to do the same. Every aspect of the project should be fair game. Will every idea be feasible? No. Will every feasible idea get implemented before the project is complete? No. Is this is a problem? Not at all. Just the simple act of proposing a mundane suggestion has a beneficial effect on the project team. It's exercise for the brain. Following standard processes for completing project work is efficient, but can be deflating for team members if they're not empowered to propose ideas for improvement. If the PM is not the Experimenter-In-Chief of the team, team members will not feel as free to make suggestions.
  6. Gemba Walker...Some traditional PM's will have big problems with this one. With the proliferation of powerful, easy-to-use IT solutions for project management, PM's are tempted to run the show through their computers, and not where the real work is being performed. The problem with this is that PM software only shows an abstract representation of the status of the work, not the actual status of the work. Lean PM's spend a crazy amount of time out at the gemba (the place where the real work is done) observing the work, learning, teaching, experimenting, and communicating. By spending time at the gemba and seeing reality firsthand, Lean PM's can identify waste and problems before they become project killers.
  7. Visual Manager...This is related to gemba walking. When we are observing work, we are much more effective if we have visual controls to aid us in understanding irregularities. A line chart is more effective if there's a benchmark line that shows the performance goal. It's much easier to determine whether a garbage can is in the right place if there's a spot marked on the floor showing where it goes. It's much easier to audit a process if a standard work chart is posted visually in the work area. Lean PM's constantly walk the gemba and ask "How do I know if this is right or wrong?" and insist that the status of the work be displayed visually at the workplace. Lean PM's should use the 30-second rule, which says that within 30 seconds a manager should be able to walk into the workplace and understand the status of the work. Then, Lean PM's should insist that information be shared with the entire team, via visual control boards, in order to "create participation through shared information."
These are the behaviors and attributes that I'm trying to incorporate into my practice of project management. I'm sure there are other elements that I'm missing, but I think this is a pretty good start. For the lean thinkers out there, I wonder what characteristics they've observed in PM's that they regard as lean project managers.


Pradeep Bhanot said...

I too am a big proponent of Lean thinking in Project Management. I recently blogged on the relationship of Project Portfolio Management to Lean IT at:

I agree, lean thinking is a mindset that can be applied to project management and the personal characteristics you describe can be applied to most management disciplines in IT to create efficiency, improve customer focus and reduce wasted effort.

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