Lean Thinking, described and popularized in the book “Lean Thinking” by James Womack and Daniel Jones, is summarized as: “focusing on delivering the most value from a customer perspective, while reducing waste and fully utilizing the skills and knowledge of those doing the work”. These are all relevant goals for today’s Project Management Office (PMO) and the reason that increasingly organizations are using Lean Thinking to boost value and reduce waste in the PMO.
Lean Thinking embodies a wide range of principles and techniques. I like to think of it as a philosophy plus a toolbox of techniques. For this article, we will focus on applying some basic principles for delivering value and identifying wastes to avoid within the PMO.
It’s about people first.
Unlike some other project management approaches, lean is human-centered not process-centered. Two overarching themes prevail over all the practices:
- Involve everyone – Always make sure everyone involved, impacted and perceived to be impacted is consulted and engaged in the process. This does not mean every font change of a Project Charter template needs CFO approval, but it does mean that all plans, initiatives and work are open and available for contribution or comment to anyone who is interested. Basically, be open and transparent, you never know who might have a great insight or spot a flaw before it impacts performance.
- The Customer Defines Value – Rather than automatically acting to minimize costs or reduce time to market, lean specifically adds the step of asking the customer to define what value means to them. Some groups may focus more on quality at the expense of time or costs, others may value time-to-market and happily sacrifice some scope or cost over runs to get there. It sounds like common-sense, but all too often people get disappointed with a group because of mismatched values. Adding the “customer defines value” step helps avoid those mismatches before the can occur.
Lean Thinking Principles and the PMO
Lean Thinking suggests five principles as starting points for a continuous cycle of delivery and improvement. Let’s review them one-by-one and see how a PMO can embody the concepts they represent:
- Specify what creates value from the customer – This principle takes the “Customer Defines Value” theme we just talked about and bakes it right into the first step of the process. PMO’s understand they serve multiple customers, typically including their sponsoring group who pays to put PMO’s in place.
Value for the PMO sponsoring group likely includes helping projects be successful, ensuring good practices are followed, providing objective evaluation of performance and risk signs, providing help/training where required, etc. Another group of customers is the project teams and team leads / managers. These customers typically want low overheads for PMO compliance and timely responses to requests for support, training, etc. Both of these groups (and any others that apply) must be canvassed to determine what value means to them.
- Identify all steps - value adding and non-value adding across the whole value stream that bring a product or service to the customer – This is the process of analyzing how things actually operate to get work done. Some activities are necessary value-adding tasks, such as performing a review, while others will be non-value adding activities, like waiting for feedback.
Lean thinking provides tools such as Value-Stream-Mapping to analyze processes and categorize value-adding and non-value-adding tasks. It also allows us to calculate metrics like cycle time and process efficiency. Using these tools to look at the current-state and future-states of PMO processes, groups can analyze and optimize how to best deliver value.
- Establish flow – The continuous movement of products, services and information from end to end through the process. Moving large batches of anything, whether its requirements in a specification document or artifact templates to a standards library creates consumption and improvement problems.
It is better to move smaller batches more frequently. That way there is not a large delay while things are consumed and processed, also if defects or areas for improvement are found in an early batch the information can be sent back to the producing group and the issue addressed in later versions. Establishing flow improves efficiency, quality and the ability to manage changes. PMO’s can support this by encouraging the small batch flow of user stories and retrospectives vs specification documents and project lessons learned reports.
- Implement Pull – The idea that nothing is done by the upstream process until the downstream, customer signals the need. Stock piling products or service offerings ready for consumption or in-hope that they are consumed is wasteful. It consumes time and energy with in-progress work that has not yet delivered value and often people will want something slightly different.
A preferable approach is to spend this effort on getting good at rapidly delivering what is asked for. Then establishing signaling mechanisms so that the need (or imminent need) for a product or service triggers its creation. With a stock pile of zero the next item you get is perfectly made for you rather than the next available. PMO’s can embrace this principle by providing just in time reviews rather than standard readiness assessments. They can also create, say, charter templates based on project characteristics not boilerplate, also Steering Committee updates based on current questions not standard templates.
- Work to perfection – The goal is the complete elimination of waste so that all activities create value for the customer by continuous improvement. While perfection may be unreachable, the goal of this principle is to instill the idea that improvement is an ongoing process that does not stop. People should always be looking (and encouraged) to improve the delivery of value.
PMO’s can embrace and model this continuous improvement principle by highlighting their ongoing work in a “What’s New” section of their intranet site. They can help projects and teams by attending project reviews and retrospectives to endorse these activities, provide support and distribute the outcomes to a wider audience. Anything that promotes and encourages the continual pursuit of improvement.
Eliminating DOWNTIME - The Common Forms of Waste
Lean thinking identifies 8 common sources of waste in an organization. Groups, including PMOs should be on the lookout for these forms of waste and avoid or reduce them wherever possible. This is not a one-off activity like a yearly Spring-clean of processes. Instead, it is an ongoing vigilance like work-site safety or maintaining a respectful workplace. People are encouraged to always be looking for forms of waste and then eliminating them if possible.
Lean thinking has its roots in lean manufacturing and so several of the common forms of waste have titles that are associated with physical production, such as Over Production, Inventory and Transportation. However, versions of these wastes also occur in knowledge worker projects that are more commonly associated with manipulating ideas and information rather than physical goods. Listed below are the 8 common sources of waste and a description of how they apply to knowledge work projects along with advice on how PMOs can help reduce them. The forms of waste can be remembered by the relevant mnemonic DOWNTIME that stands for:
- Non-Utilized Talent
- Inventory Excess
- Motion waste
- Extra processing
Let’s look at each in a knowledge worker setting and see what PMO’s can do to help.
- Defects – Flaws in deliverables that create work to correct information. PMOs help project teams get things right the first time to avoid making defects. They can also help by providing extra tools and support when defects are found. Since Waste = Impact-of-defect X Time-defect-lies-undetected the timely resolution of defects is in everyone’s best interest.
PMOs can also help address excessive defects by providing standards and quality control guidance and training.
- Overproduction – Extra features or extra process that do not add sufficient value. We should always be asking “where is the next best dollar spent?” in other words, what should we do next to best add value.
PMO’s should reinforce this view by reminding people to ask: “Where is the next best dollar spent?” and avoid producing features or processes that are unlikely to be widely used or never completed. Likewise building things that are cool (resume architecture) or “might be needed” are forms of overproduction also.
- Waiting – Delays for approvals, waiting for projects to start or resources to become available are all forms of waste. They cause people to task-switch which is inefficient and a contributor to defects.
PMO’s should see if they can reduce waiting by scheduling a better alignment of project authorizations and start-up activities. Also, rather than waiting for team to form, consider bringing new projects to existing high-performing teams. Waiting delays strain learning loops as things get forgotten and it is better to seek out feedback early and apply it as soon as possible.
- Non-Utilized Talent – the waste caused by underutilizing people’s skills, talent and knowledge. Assigning staff to the wrong sort of tasks for their skills and experience results in a lack of engagement. PMOs should work closely with teams to determine not only what experience and skills people have, but also what they would like to try. Then working with projects leads to find a way to give people exposure to these new roles.
Timeboxed iterations provide a great risk-limited approach for trying new roles and building new skills. If the new roles work out then great do some more, if it does not work out then we learned something and should now try something else.
- Transportation – In knowledge work projects unnecessary handoffs are like transportation waste. They create delays and slow down value delivery. Handoffs also always result in the loss of tacit knowledge. Like the Telephone game, when a message such as “Jon picked an apple from a tree” becomes “Joan licked Adam by the sea” after a few handoffs; details become lost in translation.
PMOs can reduce transportation waste by eliminating unnecessary handoffs and ensuring information is gathered at source, not relayed through different groups.
- Inventory excess – This is partially done work that represents effort invested with no return yet. Generally, we should try to minimize work in progress (WIP) since managing that status of work and keeping it up to date gets in the way of doing other work.
PMO’s can help by encouraging and supporting the transition from large batch flow (a single large specification document for a project) and a large analysis and design deliverables to small batch flow, for example just the requirements for the next two-week iteration.
- Motion waste – this unnecessary movement in the knowledge worker world often presents itself as task-switching. It occurs whenever we ask someone to stop what they are doing and work on something else. Team members working on multiple projects must task switch frequently. Each time they have to finish and mentally park what they are working on, move to the other project and reorient and then restart the activities they were doing there. Studies show a significant reduction in productivity and a dramatic increase in defect rates.
PMO’s can eliminate task switching motion waste by first demonstrating the desired behavior within the PMO. Instead of having a dozen initiatives on the go at once with people splitting their time between them, prioritize and execute them sequentially. Having firsthand experience of increased productivity the group can more credibly help spread the word to project teams and into the portfolio and program planning activities that spawn so many simultaneous projects in the first place.
- Extra-Processing – This waste on knowledge work projects often takes the form of relearning. Poor knowledge capture leads to people having to go through the same pains and rediscovery rather than asking people who know. Other instances stem from poor instructions, and reassigning people too frequently. Finally, extra-processing can also take the form of overengineering a solution or demanding too high of a quality for the use of the product at hand.
PMO’s can help by looking at the common questions they get asked or the common omissions they see on projects and then providing information and materials to address those shortcomings in future. Using the “Where is the next best dollar spent?” question can also help diagnose where overengineering and too high quality investments are being made. When you consider all the things we need to fix and where we are trying to get to, should we really be spending more time on X or working on some other initiative? These techniques and questions can help PMOs avoid Extra-processing wastes.
Lean thinking focusses on serving customers by adding value and eliminating waste, which is well aligned with PMO goals also. PMO’s can learn lots from applying lean thinking principles to not only increase the value of the projects they support, but also increase the value of the group itself.