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What is Lean Agile Project Management?

15 Mar 2019

Lean is a tried-and-true management framework geared toward maximizing business outcomes. Although it originated in factories of the war-decimated Japan, this versatile approach still holds immense potential for various industries.

It helps organizations fine-tune their operations and gives them a chance to ditch defective processes.

The only problem is that implementation comes with a fair share of challenges. After all, Lean aims to bring positive changes for each and every employee and elevate all business processes. This company-wide overhaul is ultimately supposed to bolster product/service quality and reinforce the bottom line.

If this sounds like too much to handle, don’t fret. This guide should give you a clear idea of what lean agile project management can do for your organization.

Nothing wasted

Lean is quite broad in scope: it is a long-term process improvement model that addresses the entirety of the work that an organization handles. Hence, it encapsulates all major areas of modern management and prevents fatal project missteps.

In fact, the main objective is twofold— maximizing value while at the same time, minimizing waste (work or investment that adds no real value). In other words, it allows organizations to thrive even in unfavorable climates of scarce resources.

minimize waste maximize value

Waste can refer to:

  • Waiting (time lost to backlogs)
  • Excess production
  • Over-processing
  • Surplus inventory
  • Quality flaws
  • Inefficient transportation
  • Too many project steps 
  • Underutilized skills/brainpower

The sun rises in the east

To avoid confusion, it should be noted that the Agile component of lean is essentially the method for executing projects in short bursts. It generates a steady stream of insights and reviews, letting you adjust approaches and methodologies on the fly. Its aim is much narrower and its birthplace is software development.

On the other hand, lean originates from the manufacturing factory floor of post-World War II Japan. There, it would also become known as the Toyota Production System (TPS), which enabled automobile companies to navigate the tumultuous market conditions of the time. Blowing the budget was not even an option back then.

More specifically, Lean spurred the following improvements:

  • Lower production costs
  • Higher profit margins
  • Reduced inventories
  • Better product quality
  • Greater customer satisfaction

Despite what may seem like a limiting inception story, one can apply lean to both service and production sector. Indeed, the dazzling success of the Lean enabled it to migrate to the West. Not only that but the adoption of TPS by factory businesses and scholars sparked the whole paradigm shift in the US and other parts of the world.

Face value and beyond

This transformation process eventually spilled over into sectors that lie far beyond traditional manufacturing.

And so today, the system has taken hold in fields such as government, healthcare, and aerospace, financial services. Knowledge industry is an interesting example because it is seen as non-repetitive and non-replicable. Yet, lean has managed to transform and standardize it as well.

Furthermore, Kanban (also pioneered by Toyota) has been applied successfully to software development. This was possible due to the presence of visual aids for laying out development in a way that resembled the production chain. Thus, visualization helps us breach the gap between business goals and practice, which doesn’t have to include physical end-product or waste.

It turns out that manufacturing principles are compatible with contemporary ways of managing a business. You could say that anything of consumer value is a suitable candidate for lean treatment.

man working lean agile project management

Going with streams and flows

Speaking of which, the concept of value stream mapping is the core mechanism of the lean machinery.

It revolves around monitoring how the value and waste are created. Here, we have a sequence of activities, items, and information involved in the project and end-product delivery. The project itself has a predetermined value in terms of inputs and outputs.

More specifically, lean teaches us how to allocate materials and products where they need to be, at precisely the right time. That is the surefire way to make the most of resources that stand at your disposal. To make it happen, however, managers have a lot of ground to cover. They often use timelines that closely follow the ups and downs of consumer demand.

Making it work for you

The first thing to do before diving in is to change the mindset.

Lean governs everything that organization does and entices you to engage in continual improvement and standardization. Capturing such long-term philosophy is always easier said than done. It is also harder to pull off than finding quick fixes to problems of sub-optimal productivity.

So, develop a deeper understanding of the value your offerings have. Let consumer demand dictate your approach and pace. Based on the acquired insights, you need to make timely, educated decisions.

Moreover, identify and deal with bottlenecks and inefficiencies such as unnecessary work, scope creep (see Toptal's Guide To Managing Scope Creep), lack of stakeholder commitment, poor communication, and overblown inventory costs.

lean inventory

Heed the principles of Agile, which lays the groundwork for incremental, gradual progress and growth. Once you grasp the basics, you can opt for another, specific type of lean management. Three major iterations to consider are the Deming Cycle, Six Sigma, and Kanban.

They all have pros and cons you would be wise to weigh. That is to say that you should take your time and do your homework. Synchronize and coordinate steps and streamline sequences of business processes.

Following these steps, you should be able to deliver a killer product and make strides towards set goals.


Lean is conducive to business success across industry sectors. As it turns out, it translates extremely well even to fields that have little in common with manufacturing.

In its essence, it represents an ongoing effort to minimize time and resource waste and ensure peak productivity. To get the ball rolling, first make sure the methodology suits your specific business needs and ever-changing industry requirements.

Then, map the value stream in its current state and optimize the flow to tie up different project stages. Get ready to alter production swiftly, as per peaks and valleys of demand.

All your efforts are bound to yield results and rewards. Leverage lean agile project management to provide greater value to the customer, empower the team, and refine the workflow. It’s a win-win!