Agile and lean are not the same thing but are closely related. This post looks at the idea of ‘lean agile’ and its application to project management and strategy.
What Is Lean Agile Project Management?
To understand what lean agile project management is, it is helpful to compare it to other approaches to project management.
The above graphic shows the software development life cycle (SDLC) for waterfall and agile, and then shows the difference with lean.
- Waterfall – The graphic shows that the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) consists of basic steps – more like processes or phases – to develop a system. In the case of waterfall, each step or process must be completed before starting the next step. The benefit is that you can minimize mistakes and rework in building a product. The downside is that it may not really be clear what you really need to build.
- Agile – Agile project management addresses that need for both clarity and flexibility in what needs to be built. It collapses the steps or processes into short iterations that produce an output. Release and feedback cycles are more frequent, allowing the flexibility to adjust earlier in the project.
- Lean – When lean is added to the mix – a ‘lean agile’ approach – make efforts to reduce waste using the fundamental approaches discussed in the first section above. Not only is the project unfolding with flexibility, as with agile, but it is doing so more efficiently by improving the processes at each iteration.
The reality on virtually every project is that a hybrid approach is needed – combining waterfall and agile. Projects work their way through the SDLC in a somewhat uneven way – where there is almost never a clean break between one phase, step, or process and the next.
Apply Lean to Agile Projects
How can you make agile projects more efficient? It’s clear how agile compresses waterfall into multiple iterations that add flexibility and clarity.
But how can you make the agile process itself more efficient?
A good approach is to apply lean thinking to your agile process.
The following are some core lean concepts that you can systematically apply and improve your agile process:
- Eliminate waste – It makes sense to eliminate waste. Look for integration points and activities no longer needed. Think of work completed and work needed, and prioritize accordingly. Take a fresh look at existing goals and processes.
- Empower the team – Differentiate between the higher level strategic direction and the team level decisions that need to be made. Trust and allow the team to make decisions in the defined domain. Practice servant leadership to help – not micromanage – the team. Take the scrum master approach of ‘coaching’ the team – aiming to no longer be needed.
- Deliver fast – Think in terms of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). What is ‘good enough’ in terms of scope? What will enable us to deliver something of value AND receive feedback that will inform the next iteration?
- Optimize the whole – What strategic objective does the activity support? Keep it aligned. And continuously work on alignment across departments, work groups and other organizational entities through collaboration and cooperation around the activity.
- Build quality in – Don’t leave testing to the end, or dismiss it as not worth the effort at the earlier sages Make it par of a continuous process to avoid or minimize rework, cleanup, and integration issues later.
- Defer decisions – Make decisions only when they need to be made to continue forward. Decisions may be better informed by what is learned in the interim steps.
- Amplify learning – This is a team sport. It’s not what one or a few people learn – it’s what everyone surrounding the effort learns. Place emphasis on learning at every level, informing stakeholders up and down the chain at each progressive step. That’s true alignment.
Let’s turn to the strategic implications of implementing agile and lean on projects.
Strategic Implications of Lean Agile
Here are two ways that lean agile project management can impact strategy positively:
- Flexible strategic approach – In essence, formulating strategy is a project unto itself. Those are the kinds of projects that McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and others run. The question is, can strategists really know all they need to know up front – as in waterfall – to identify the strategy? Assumptions can be wrong, or they can change. Flexibility is important. An agile approach can be beneficial – and making it more efficient with lean agile is even better. Lean can stimulate innovation.
- Strategic capability – Nurturing and managing a lean agile capability is a strategic capability. It’s the ability to implement rapidly, acquire feedback, and learn quickly. It’s the ability to continuously adapt to unfolding and changing requirements to deliver what customers need when they need it. It’s a capability to connect strategy and implementation seamlessly up, down, and across an organization. And that capability is strongest when it is continuously refined – a lean agile capability.
I recommend these strategy resources (paid link):
Undoubtedly the premier strategy consulting firms use agile in some form. Companies need to find a balance in applying agile – and lean – to their strategy formulation efforts.
Infusing Lean Into Agile Project Management
As the graphic at top shows, lean simply means consciously paying attention to the efficiency of the process at each iteration. It means identifying and implementing changes to the process that make efforts more efficient.
I recommend these PM templates (paid link):
The efforts are going to be different for each team and for each project. Infusing lean is a good thing to do systematically, but is best when done by the self-managed, agile team.
While each team and effort are unique there are lessons learned and practices adopted that can be applied elsewhere. Providing collaboration and visibility across teams and efforts can result in common efficiencies that most everyone would adopt.
In order to adopt the most and best efficiencies through lean, leaders need to ensure that collaboration and transparency exist across programs and portfolios. Provide capabilities and processes that allow and encourage teams to share – such as the practice of Kanban and other approaches. One great tool to use for examining and improving your processes is Lucidchart – (paid link).
Applying ‘Lean Agile’ to Project Management
Applying lean to your project management process is akin to applying lessons learned from a project. What can we do to improve our process. Lean agile is doing that as part of each iterative cycle.
Can you provide any success stories you have experienced applying lean agile?
I recommend this video for a clear overview on developing a lean agile mindset: