Project Management

The Ultimate Guide to Lean Project Management

Published by in Project Management

Do you want to remove common areas of waste and enhance your project management? For some, productivity means increasing output while using less resources. For others, it reflects enhanced inventory management. Whichever way you define it, productivity is critical to any project.

If you’re interested in increasing your company’s productivity, you might want to try out lean project management.

As a project manager, you have likely tried various methods to improve productivity.

But have you tried lean management?

Let’s start by discussing what lean management is, what are its forms, and its applications.

What is lean project management?

Lean management

Lean is a philosophy of management created by Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS enhances manufacturing and logistics and streamlines interaction with suppliers and customers. Lean follows the “just-in-time production” principle.

According to The Toyota Way, published by Dr. Jeffrey Liker, TPS created the 14 principles of lean management. The book analyzes challenges Toyota faced in streamlining its car manufacturing production line. These challenges included:

  • Transport – moving products not necessary in the production process
  • Inventory – poor management of components, processes, and finished product
  • Motion – unnecessary movement of people or equipment in a process
  • Waiting – collaborating with the next production step leads to waiting time
  • Overproduction – increasing supply of components beyond the actual demand
  • Overprocessing – devoting more resources than standards demand
  • Defects – risk of flaws due to inadequate quality inspection

These challenges came to be known as the seven mudas, or wastes, to remove, and Toyota applied TPS for car manufacturing to that end

How did Toyota create lean?

Toyota identified the mudas and developed processes for delivering the results. The company then applied the principles of lean manufacturing. Since then, lean management has become a tool based on the Toyota principles.

John Krafcik introduced lean in a 1988 article, Triumph of the Lean Production System. The article was for a master’s thesis at MIT Sloan School of Management. The International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) at MIT continued Krafcik’s research. The research resulted in the international best-selling book, The Machine That Changed the World. The book was co-authored by Jim Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos.

IT, construction, education, and other industries have adopted the lean management principle.

. Benefits of applying lean management include:

  • Enhanced customer service – deliver exactly what the customer needs
  • Improved productivity – improve the output and value-add per person
  • Quality – implement rigorous quality checks to reduce product defects and rework
  • Innovation – improve the project through brainstorming and creative ideas
  • Reduced waste – less transport, waiting, inefficient use of space, and physical waste
  • Improved lead times – respond quicker to project requirements with fewer delays
  • Improved inventory management – less work in progress and inventory, resulting in fewer bottlenecks


According to Lean Enterprise Institute, “The core idea of lean management is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.”

In brief, to reduce waste and add value during each project phase.

The types of lean project management include Deming Cycle (PDCA), Kanban, and Lean Six Sigma (DMEDI).

What are the types of lean project management?


  • Deming Cycle (PDCA)


Inspired by Kaizen tools of lean management, W. Edwards created the Deming philosophy. The philosophy defines four phases of achieving consistent results. These phases include:

  • Plan – Analyze and identify the problem
  • Do – Develop solutions to address the problem
  • Check – Track the effectiveness of the solutions and make improvements
  • Act – Execute and apply the revised solutions

As you might have noticed, the first letters of the each phrase form the acronym PDCA.

One example of Deming Cycle tools is the Five Whys.

The Deming Cycle is especially useful on recurring projects. For example, start by organizing impact analysis brainstorming sessions during the Plan phase. Focus on identifying the answers to Five Whys to assess your previous process. Ask yourself, “Were there any bottleneck issues in previous projects?”

In the Do phase, let your team identify solutions to problems in a project lifecycle. In the Check phase, track the quality and effectiveness of the solutions implemented. In the final Act phase, include improvements in the project. In theory, the Deming Cycle improves the project every time it repeats itself.

Outside of manufacturing, PDCA is also useful in the construction industry. In fact, this method of lean management is useful for all industries following a systematic production cycle.


  • Lean Six Sigma (DMEDI)


Lean Six Sigma (Six Sigma or 6σ is a statistical concept that removes 3.4 defect parts per million (PPM) in a production process) identifies the root cause of problems in project management. This method focuses on eliminating wastage of time and resources. The five phases (define, measure, explore, develop, and implement) for managing projects include:

  • Define the project scope, plan goals, and identify the value for your customer
  • Measure how you will quantify success throughout the project
  • Explore new ways to complete projects for improving the process
  • Develop a full proof project plan by assessing project requirements
  • Implement the project plan to complete project objectives

The first letters of Lean Six Sigma phases form the acronym DMEDI.

Lean Six Sigma methods need lean management tools. Use these tools to check data and measure continuous improvement of project goals. Tools used in Six Sigma for project management include:

  • Kanban


Kanban is a Japanese word for “visual signal” or “card.” The concept is part of lean project management. Why? Kanban’s visual nature enables teams to communicate on work streams. All team members are on the same page throughout the project. It also standardizes task queues to reduce waste and maximize customer value.

How can you use Kanban to manage your project? You can categorize each phase as “To Do,” “Doing,“ and “Done” and assign project tasks using sticky notes. That’s a manual approach. You can also use project management software inspired by Kanban.

Implementing lean project management

Before implementing lean project management, know the Toyota Principles.

These principles help create a new process for project management. Use them as a reference and for inspiration. They form the cornerstones of the lean management philosophy.

Here is a summary of the principles to reduce waste and achieve higher productivity:


  • Plan based on a long-term philosophy rather than short-term financial goals


People in your project need a sense of purpose to achieve project goals. Motivation creates a clear vision for aligning themselves with these goals. Identify gaps or waste in your project management process. Project success comes from lessons learned in making the project more efficient. ROI and profit are not the only measure of business success.


  • Highlight problem areas by creating a continuous process flow


Don’t focus on improving one project task at a time. Focus on improving the entire project management process all at once. Focus on this principle if you have more than 10 employees working on the project. Keep innovating new processes to improve the project cycle.

  • Use the “pull” systems to remove overproduction


How do you know when you should stop sending a shipment of products to your client? For obvious reasons, the client would call you and tell you to stop. Focus on effective communication with all stakeholders. Use Kanban through software like Trello to keep stakeholders synced. Create a demand and supply based project management process. Each stakeholder gets notified about work status.

  • Divide the workload evenly across your team


This principle helps minimize waste by not overburdening stakeholders in your project. Remember that each stakeholder in your project has a predefined role to play. If they feel exhausted with one project task, they won’t add quality. As a project manager, your key takeaway should be on prioritizing quality vs. quantity. Assign tasks to stakeholders based on the workload that they can handle.


  • Create a culture of fixing problems to maintain the highest quality standards


All stakeholders in your project have an equal say on implementing solutions. They should have the authority to signal any quality issue. Be open to feedback throughout the project management process.

  • Maintain consistency of tasks and processes for continuous improvement and employee engagement


Create a standardized project by maintaining quality control checklists and standard operating procedures. If you don’t standardize project management parameters, project quality won’t improve.

  • Use visual controls like Kanban to highlight problem areas and reporting


This principle uses the 5S program of lean management. The 5S stands for:

  • Sort
  • Straighten
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Sustain

Use Kanban to highlight issues in each stage of the project, to highlight these 5Ss in your project.

  • Focus on reliable and tested technology for your team and project


Identify tools and software (mentioned below) to improve the project management.

  • Empower leaders who understand the work philosophy and mentor it to team members


Without constant innovation, these principles can fade away. These principles should be part of project management process. Your employees should have the latest training to create a learning organization.

  • Develop unique people and teams to follow your company’s philosophy


Create teams that comprise at least 4-5 people from different management tiers. The success of your project depends on the team and not the individual.

  • Respect your network partners and suppliers by helping them to improve their processes


This principle may not apply to you as a project manager. Collaborate with other team managers and respect their best practices of project management.

  • Educate yourself and team members on key project requirements


Project management is a continuous learning process. Take a note of lessons from project failures and successes.

  • Make a decision based on consensus after considering all options


Sometimes a project plan does not meet expectations. To avoid such situations, follow these parameters:

  • Find out what is going on (go-and-see)
  • Determine the root cause of problems
  • Consider other alternatives
  • Create consensus on the resolution
  • Use communication tools that are efficient
  • Create a learning-based organization through continuous reflection and improvement


Focus on creating a learning environment in your team.

These principles are part of Toyota’s vision and mission philosophy. They are broad and represent the vision and mission of Toyota as a company.

Apply the first five principles to your project management. You can innovate your project based on the other principles.

Jeffrey Liker in his book, The Toyota Way, explains “If you are using the Toyota Way to become lean, the lesson here is that you don’t have to get hung up imitating Toyota’s use of specific tools so you can appear to be lean like Toyota. The Toyota Way is a philosophy and a set of tools that must be applied to your situation. But understand that these principles are something to believe and strive for. They are part of a greater system that is seeking harmony and perfection to sustain success.”

In short, you don’t have to rigidly adhere to all the principles. Follow the ones that you think are crucial to your project management.

When should you use lean project management?

Lean projects have an iterative structure like Agile project management. Moreover, the customer is part of the lean project management process.

Use lean project management in small projects that have a short term delivery timeline. Small and self-managing teams are less effective in managing large projects. Lean teams need strong communication between team members. Lean management is simple to apply on small projects. It does not benefit from extra resources.

Ready to apply lean?

Lean management reduces waste and increases customer collaboration, making it an ideal approach for small projects.

What are your views on lean project management? Have you ever tried it? Let me know in the comments below.

View Capterra’s The Top 20 Most Popular Project Management Software for more software related to lean management.

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About the Author

Abhishek Singh

Abhishek Singh

Team lead at Capterra, sharing insights about accounting and finance and managing a team of writers and content analysts. I have completed my M.A. in English, University of Delhi and have more than 10 years of experience in content writing, editing, and team management. I enjoy watching and reading sci-fi movies and novels as well as historical documentaries.


Comment by Carlos Mena on

Awesome explanation of Lean!!

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