What is lean?

The term "lean" was coined by three academics (Jones, Roos and Womack) in their book, The Machine That Changed The World. The book described the the Toyota Production System and the revolutionary impact that it had on the world's car manufacturing industry. Toyota wanted to compete on the world stage but lacked the resources to do so. Through necessity, they rethought the manufacturing process and thereby gained a competitive advantage by drastically cutting the cost of production and significantly improving product quality. Two of the authors, Womack and Jones, went on to write another bookLean Thinking, in which they advocate applying lean thinking to all types of organisations. In that book, they set out five inter-related 'principles of lean thinking':

  1. Identify Customers and Specify Value.
  2. Identify and Map the Value Stream.
  3. Create Flow by Eliminating Waste.
  4. Respond to Customer Pull.
  5. Pursue Perfection.

I believe that these principles can be applied to projects with a similarly radical impact on cost and on quality. In the following sections, I'll set out how I think these principles can be interpreted for projects but the key point is:

It's all about value!

Superior customer value is the raison d'être of lean thinking. It is about understanding and identifying what our customers value, only doing those activities needed to deliver that value and constantly striving to improve how we do that. It is not about requirements - it is about value. That's the major mindshift. 1. Identify Customers and Specify Value If you had to choose just one principle, it would be this one. The term customers comes naturally when thinking about car manufacturing but it is not a term that one hears a lot in projects. It is more likely that people will be talking about the 'sponsor' and the other 'stakeholders'. This is shame because the language we use about things is really important. As nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (pictured right) tells us in his seminal book, Thinking Fast and Slow, an individual word prompts our minds to instantly fire off a vast range of subconscious associations. The word 'customer' fires off a whole range of associations, whose implication and expectations are familiar to us from our daily lives. When you get a spare moment, stop for a moment and make a list of the characteristics that define a customer. Contrast those characteristics with those for the neutral terms of 'sponsor' or 'stakeholder'. (And by the way, manually writing them down engages different neural circuitry to simply thinking about them) Having identified the customers, we need to determine what they see as value. This is a big topic but let me try to cut to the essence. Value can be defined as the ratio of benefit to resources consumed (usually money) to obtain the benefit. Thus: value = benefit / resources consumed But the other key point is that: value is in the eye of the beholder Consider a wristwatch. Let's say the benefit is the ability to tell the time and the resource consumed is the money to pay for it. Now compare a Rolex watch and a Sekonda watch. Which provides the better value? The Sekonda is is considerably cheaper than the Rolex, so the Sekonda surely provides better value? The answer is that it depends on the perspective of the customer. Rolex sell a lot of watches because their product provides a lot of benefits that are beyond simply telling the time. Value is in the eye of the beholder and from a project point of view, we need to understand and map the value that customers and other stakeholders will derive from the project. If we're smart, we'll also map the value they derive from the status quo, before we think about changing it. Now, projects usually talk in terms of benefits and, if they are good projects, they will quantify those benefits. I believe, however, that thinking in terms of value, rather than benefits, is more powerful because it encapsulates both cost and benefit into a single concept. And as the next principle points out, this can make a critical difference when mapping the value stream. 2. Identify and Map the Value Stream There are two ways of looking at this principle from a project perspective. The obvious way is to identify the stages that the project needs to go through, to deliver its value. These stages are pretty well defined in most industries and  their performance can be measured in some way that is better than not doing it all. An alternative way of looking at the value stream, however, is to take the value defined by principle #1 and break it down into a stream of desirable value. Consider a big home refurbishment project. If you have ever seen the television programmeGrand Designs, you'll get the picture. A couple decide to take on a huge refurbishment project, vowing to be in by Christmas. Cut to snow covered building site and the disconsolate couple still leaving in a temporary home on the site. Alternatively, they could have collaborated with their builder to map the value stream. Having identified a functioning toilet as having particularly high value, they could then have asked for it to be delivered first. Then this might be followed by a shower room, followed by a kitchen, a bedroom and so on. The total value could have been delivered in chunks. The builder might argue that this approach would make the overall process more expensive. But they ran out of money anyway, because it was always going to be  impossible to estimate the cost of a such a novel project. And anyway, wouldn't it be better to have a four-bedroomed home with a roof, rather than an uninhabitable eight-bedroomed home without a roof? Putting the toilet first illustrates why it is better to think think about value rather than benefits. The highest value is not necessarily associated the item with the highest benefit or highest cost. It is a function of benefit, cost and schedule. Note that taking this approach requires the customer and builder to think about solutions that allow for incremental delivery of value. You don't design a solid oak wardrobe for Ikea and then try to figure out how to flat pack it. Ikea furniture is designed to be flat packed. There is another benefit of this incremental approach that I will talk about in principle #5 3. Create Flow by Eliminating Waste The Standish Group have a database of over 70,000 IT projects. They report that 'only about 20% of  features and functions specified ever get used'. That's clearly a lot of waste. Considerable effort is being spent writing, reviewing, designing, testing and implementing requirements that are never used. The problem isn't restricted to IT projects. I have been involved in a few large, well-funded corporate start-ups. And every time, the project team sets about creating processes and procedures, to be used by operational staff who are not scheduled to be recruited until quite some time in the future. And every time, when the permanent recruits arrive, they bin the stuff done by the temporary project team and create what they need, when they need it. Not only is the planning and execution of this sort of thing a waste, it impedes the flow of value by using up  intellectual and emotional energy. In projects, creating flow by eliminating waste,is tightly coupled with the next principle, responding to customer pull. 4. Respond to Customer Pull If one has followed the advice encapsulated in principles #1 and #2, responding to customer pull means taking an increment of value and identifying what needs to be done, and only what needs to be done, to deliver it. It's worth knowing that psychologists have found that looking back from a richly imagined future state engages more areas of the brain than planning forward, towards an outcome. This is one of the reasons why most successful sportsmen and women, spend a lot of time doing outcome-based visualisation, including the act of lifting the trophy. Identifying an increment of value and then looking backwards, to identify what is needed to deliver it is, therefore, a very powerful tool for projects. It's also why a shared, richly-imagined, vision is such an important foundation for project success. 5. Pursue Perfection Pursuing perfection is about continuous improvement. This is difficult with projects because: The learning cycle has a long duration becauses similar situations don't repeat quickly.

  • Each project tackles a different challenge.
  • Each project tends to assemble a different team.
  • Each project has different customers and stakeholders.

However, if one opts for regular, incremental delivery, it is like running lots of mini-projects. Learning cycle times are shorter, it's the same overall challenge, with the same project team, working with the same customer. And each time value is delivered, we can evaluate:

  • Cost and duration versus forecast.
  • Value and quality versus expectation.
  • The relationship between customer and supplier.

Regular delivery of value provides us with a the tools with which to pursue perfection,  within a single project. Summary Lean thinking has a lot to teach us about projects by placing value at forefront of our thinking and aligning our work to deliver that value, based on customer pull. Think value not requirements and beware of approaches that build huge 'inventories' of requirements that are never used. FURTHER INFORMATION If would like to learn more about Gary Lloyd,  Principal Consultant at Double Loop Consulting, please click here to visit the Double Loop Consulting website.