Getting Rid of Waste at the Project Level


Now that Lean philosophy has made its way into almost every industry and business category imaginable, even those who don’t live and breathe manufacturing can guess that Lean Project Management is about delivering maximum customer value through the elimination of waste.

The premise being that if 100% of what makes a project’s process inefficient is eliminated, all that’s left is value – and a happy customer.

Sounds good in theory, but is it practical to think we can get rid of all waste in project management?

After all, most of us have attended more than our fair share of inefficient meetings, we’ve seen communication go awry countless times and we’ve likely come to accept human error as simply part of the process.

Even so, Lean holds waste not as something we should try to avoid, but as something we can and must avoid – and this applies to Lean Project Management too.

The question is: What are the areas of waste in project management and how do we eliminate them?

Here are just a few of the waste makers that are common in project management:

-Too-long meetings

-Unproductive meetings

-Spending time collecting redundant data

-Collecting useless data

-Neglecting to consider the real customer(s)

-Micro-managing the schedule

-Spending time on reports that go unread

-Designing documentation that goes unused

-Assigning too many people to a problem

-Re-hashing issues that have already been solved

-Managing what doesn’t need managing

-Not tapping into team member strengths

If the above sounds familiar, you’€™re certainly not alone. Most organizations deal with these same time and resource wasters on a regular basis.

Fortunately, Lean principles and practices can easily be applied to project management to help teams work more efficiently, find and eliminate non-essential project elements and generally increase effectiveness with fewer resources.

Lean Principles & Tools in Practice in PM

The following Lean tools are exceptional for putting waste on the fast track out of project management:

Take the Unnecessary Out of the Process (or Value Stream Mapping in PM): One of the biggest complaints in project processes is too many cooks in the kitchen and too many approval layers. Applying the Lean tool of Value Stream Mapping to project management can identify unnecessary touch points and streamline the process from start to finish.

Empower Employees to Improve the Process (or Kaizen in PM): The too many cooks/too many layers discussed above comes down to a lack of trust. Because Lean emphasizes a culture of accountability and respect, and because the focus is on the process, rather than placing blame on the person, and because team members value strong processes, project team members are entrusted to address challenges that arise on their own, increasing the efficiency of the project process dramatically.

Fix Process Problems in the Moment (or Poka Yoke in PM): As part of empowering employees to improve the process themselves, team members are also empowered to fix those problems immediately. This is very counter to traditional project management’s “lessons learned”€ papers that appear months after a project is complete and which did nothing to address the inefficiency in that project. Lean holds that if something is not working now, it needs to be addressed now. Additionally, the definition of Poka Yoke includes designing solutions in a way that makes error impossible. This is the goal in Lean project management, too. To the extent possible, the project management solutions should inherently stop further waste from occurring.

Go to Your Team Rather than Asking Your Team to Come to You (or the Gemba Walk in PM): Taking team members away from their work wastes time – especially when that team member is being asked to engage in any of the waste makers we listed above. Instead, Lean holds that those guiding the project need to “€œgo to the Gemba”€ or go to the team. This one simple shift in process can eliminate a significant amount of waste. It’s also a respect builder in that it’s the antithesis of the old-school corporate power dynamic and demonstrates where in the organization the value really is (with the hands-on team) in a way that is highly visible to the entire team.

Which brings us to an overarching waste-eliminating thought: Hands Off.

You can see that in Lean project management, there’€™s trust in the project management process, trust in the project manager and trust in the project team – and this trust is a powerful tool.

But it’s not a Pollyannish blind trust.

Lean practices bring weak links to the surface faster because the places to hide (in too long meetings, in finger-pointing, in re-hashing old issues and more) are gone.

Which also means that once you go Lean in project management and not only uncover, but solve, inefficiencies, it’s very difficult to go back. The project team and manager have experienced the value of the Lean approach and, if asked to return to the old ways, are not likely to go quietly.

What’s your perspective?

Where do you see waste in project management?

What steps are you taking to eliminate that waste?

We invite you to share your thoughts in a comment to this post and we look forward to a robust discussion.


EFI Group’€™s managing partner, Bill Ballard, will be presenting his talk, Customer-Focused Project Management: The Art & Patience of Implementing KILLER Lean Manufacturing Improvements, at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Lean Conference on Nov 6 @ 2:30pm.

For a truly in-depth look at this topic, we encourage you to attend: Click here for details and to register.

We hired EFI Group to help us figure out a project and scope it, and I felt confident they would keep a keen eye on it. They had to deliver quickly and they did it well. They are especially good at project management when you don’t have the resources to do it internally. Reliability is the word I would use to describe EFI Group.
— Coatings Industry Professional
EFI Group is timely. We’ve had a lot of situations when we’ve been in a time crunch and they’ve responded very quickly. They are detail oriented and efficient. They’re a good group of people who also have a lot of strength in pre-engineering — the thought process to get to preliminary design and making sure we’ve investigated all the potential asks of a project to ensure we didn’t miss anything. They have great attention to detail up front which is very important to any project because having that detail-oriented deep dive into the pre-engineering phase sets the stage for the success of the rest of the project, making the process smoother and making it much easier to keep the project on schedule and on budget.
— Mike Quigley, Engineering & Maintenance Manager, Food Industry
I’ve worked with EFI Group for a while, so I know they have a good, knowledgeable staff. We know we’re going to get the results from them we expect. From my interactions with all the different EFI team members I’ve worked with, I know they have knowledge across many industries. Equally, I never have to follow up with EFI Group and, in some cases, they keep me on track.
— Ryan Fredsall, General Manager, Pacer Minerals LLC
We view EFI Group as a team that can dimensionalize our capability to execute projects. We can articulate what it is we want to do and they can take that input and run with it without much intervention from us. They’re able to move a project along independently and only engage us when it’s time to bring us up to speed or get more input to drive a project to conclusion. That’s one of the reasons I view them as an excellent contractor.
— Environmental Engineering Industry Professional
EFI Group has good engineers and good customer service. We know when we get an EFI engineer on a project, we’re going to a get a good job from them and it’s been a productive relationship for both of us — I genuinely like the people.
— Corporate Director, Project Management in Food & Flavors Industry
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