Lean Project Management

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

One day you emerge from your Performance Improvement Project status meeting and realize your once “lean and mean” project is waddling toward the completion date. It’s destined to be late for lots of reasons.  How could this happen? You started out with Lean Project Management but then...

  • The engineers fell in love with a new nano technology that was critical to the first deliverable. But now they’ve added it to four more deliverables.  That added a few extra days of development and a few more of testing, then another few on installation.
  • You lost a couple of arguments about a “Do-it-Yourself” report generator that two stakeholders raved about.  You were willing to bet they would never use it but eventually they went to their boss about it. Then you got a phone call from the sponsor about the need to keep the stakeholders happy.
  • The sponsor insisted upon adding a training class to the project. He wouldn’t listen when you tried to explain that the class would delay the completion date.  The sponsor told you, “Find a way; use your leadership skills.”

Now your once lean project is a fat pig. Stakeholders want to talk about features, functionalities and fixtures, not the business value they will deliver.  Planning the project is difficult when executives talk about “getting started quickly” and finishing “as soon as possible.” They think you can plan the project as you go. Project Methodology Main Page

Lean Project Management: Techniques That Don’t Work

A never-ending stream of changes and additions make it difficult to stop projects from adding fat. So how do you cope? Well, there are a number of techniques that don’t work.  The first “sure to fail” tactic is to write long, rambling project scope statements that are so vague no one disagrees with anything in them.  This makes the stakeholders very happy with you…in the beginning.

The second “sure to fail” tactic is to focus on features, fixtures and activities. This delights the micro-managers in the stakeholder group as well as people who want to avoid conflict and making difficult decisions.  This last group is easily identified because they’re the ones who only talk about getting off to a fast start.

Lean Project Management Techniques That Do Work

We’ve talked about what doesn’t work. Now let’s talk about the lean project management techniques that do work because they let you “frame” the project.  You need to get all the project stakeholders to look at the business situation through the same frame. Then they must agree on the dimensions of the frame which are the project’s business value.

lean project managementA Short, Direct & Measured Broad-Brush Plan

Long windy narratives don’t give you the kind of framing you need because people don’t read them and the frame has no hard edges.  These “literary masterpieces” define the scope with such political correctness that everybody can see something in it they like.  What works best in lean project management is a short, 1 -1.5 page, broad-brush strategic plan that frames the measurable and verifiable business outcomes and the value of the project.  You can always write a more massive plan once the strategic framing is approved.

In lean project management, you must do the difficult thinking that’s required to frame the project in terms of measurable business results. You must resist talking to project executives about the  technical details of the approach that you’ll use. Few project sponsors are interested in the technical details of coding languages or design strategies.  Project managers who talk to sponsors at this level should not be surprised when they have difficulty getting the executives to meet with them.  Regardless of how fascinating you may find the technical details, most project sponsors are not interested in how you get to the end result.  They don’t care about the nitty gritty details.  They like the lean project management approach of what people will pay for the product and how many the Sales people can sell.

That’s why lean project management requires you to do the difficult task of probing the business situation and quantifying the project outcomes and the business value of the project. You must find out what business value the sponsor wants the project to produce. For example, it can be a new product or a solution to a problem.  You must express that business value in the sponsor’s language, not yours.

Spraying Gasoline on Smoldering Embers

Good strategic project framing doesn’t create conflict.  But if burning embers of conflict exist in the business situation or between the sponsors, good project framing sprays gasoline on those embers to ignite them.  Why inflame the conflict?  Because you’d much rather bring it out into the open before you start work than have the flames spring to life when the project is half done. We’re not talking about you having conflict with the sponsors.  That would be a stupid, career-limiting move. These people are your clients or organizational superiors.  No, we’re talking about inflaming the conflict between the sponsors and then facilitating its resolution before you start work on the project.

So how do you inflame this conflict? By being absolutely crystal-clear about what the project will produce and, as importantly, what it will not.  You do this with a short scope statement that is unambiguous and states measurable business outcomes.  That’s the gasoline and you spray it on the fires of conflict by distributing it to everyone in a very short, direct and readable form.  You want them to agree on how they will measure success when the project is done.

Decomposing From the Top Down

Once you have the sponsor’s agreement and sign-off on the measured business outcome the project will deliver, (the scope), you start the decomposition effort.  This process develops a network of supporting sub-achievements that will lead from the present business situation to the Measure of Success (MOS™). Once again, you’re spraying gasoline on any conflicts that exist by being very specific, quantifiable, and measurable in describing the supporting business achievements that will lead the project to the end result. This path to the MOS™ includes more than just your work.  It also frames the process changes and achievements that other people in the organization must deliver.

The difficulty in this process is avoiding the “activity trap.” Everyone (including project managers) finds it easier to talk about what they’re going to do than to define what they’re going to achieve. But when the backbone of your project is laid out in measured achievement terms, you frame the project for the stakeholders and create a foundation for crystal clear assignments to your team members.  You can communicate to the team exactly what end results you expect from them before they start work.

4-Corners™ Trade-Offs     lean project management

Now you’re ready to develop the “4-Corners” of your project plan and give yourself the best scope and change control tool available. That is the ability to quantify trade-offs between the four dimensions of the project.  Every project has “4-Corners” and changes in one corner always impact at least one other corner:

  • Business value (scope)
  • Budget (cost)
  • Completion date (duration)
  • Level of confidence (risk) in delivering the preceding three corners.

Unfortunately, in most projects only one (or two at the most) of these corners is explicitly measurable.  The completion date is always objectively measurable and usually rock solid.  But most internal projects have no other measurable dimension.  In some business situations, the budget for the project will also be measurable.  But even with these two measured dimensions, the business value of the project is usually unmeasurable mush.  As a result, you can’t quantify the impact of scope changes on the budget or duration except by whining loudly.

The risk corner is rarely measured. As a result, project sponsors assume there’s no risk and you are 100% confident of delivering the business value within the duration and/or budget.  Now 100% confidence seems ridiculous, particularly in light of the fact that most organizations experience a project failure rate near 50 percent.  Yet few project managers give their sponsors the opportunity to make decisions about the level of confidence they want and the level of “risk insurance” they’re willing to pay for.

The lean project management framing process we’ve been talking about gives you a scope.  You can use that quantified measure of the project’s business value when you build your project schedule and budget.  You can also present your sponsor with quantified trade-offs between the “4-Corners” of the project plan.  This data-based decision-making and “fine-tuning” is a far better approval platform than one based on arbitrary changes to one or more of the corners without any compensating changes in the others.

You will use these quantified trade-offs every time there is a variance to the plan.  Your lean project management status reports will include trade-off analyses between the “4-Corners.” That allows executives to evaluate alternatives for taking advantage of opportunities and recovering from problems.


Learn more about our Lean Project Management Methodology and the specific techniques for framing your projects and developing “4-Corners™” trade-offs in our online project management courses. You’ll work privately and individually with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty. We can also customize a program for your organization and deliver it at your site or in online webinars.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on Amazon.com