IPMA International Project Management Association
16 August 2017 / 7:39

From Agile to Lean: Is it worth the journey?

Recently there has been a greater push towards the use of Agile methodologies and principles for project management on a wider scale, beyond its current known practical use. The idea is that agile project management is not just applicable to software projects but its principles can be used, albeit with some alterations, for engineering, construction and other types of projects (use is still evolving). It is a hot discussion topic at various fora and events where use of agile
methods and techniques is promoted thoroughly. Agility has definitely become a buzz word and a common lingo among the professionals..

Agile project management has been defined in a variety of ways. But for the sake of promoting understanding, we choose a definition that looks simple as it describes agile project management as “an alternative to traditional project management, typically used in software development. It helps teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences, known as sprints. Agile methodologies are an alternative to waterfall, or traditional sequential development” (Agile Methodology, 2008; Cited in Sankaran, 2017).

The focus of agile project management seems to be on achieving quick and timely delivery of project deliverables while being accommodating and flexible to changing environmental dynamics and customer requirements. But then question is: how to achieve a balance between being fast and flexible and at the same time avoid mistakes and ensure quality?

Contrastingly, we also get to hear a lot about Lean management and its benefits for business management. Lean is about improving processes and work flows, cutting waste / errors /
mistakes and enhancing productivity. Fundamentally, drawing its origin from manufacturing management, the focus of Lean management tends to be on achieving stable longer-term organization wide improvements.

While no standard definition exists for how Lean project management is defined, summarily Lean project management is about integrating lean principles in project management routines to enhance project delivery outcome. Such objectives are achieved through implementation of leanness in planning, design, development and deliverable verification, that is ensuring minimization of waste of project time and resources, and optimization of project work flow and processes.

Given the above discourse, agile is about achieving quick and timely delivery supported by flexibility and good decision-making processes, and lean is about reducing errors and mistakes, achieving longer term stability. However, the question is whether it is possible to achieve agility without Lean?

Intuitively, it seems that to achieve quick and timely delivery, it is important that re-work and errors are minimized and everyone act in a certain fashion (that means certain workflow is observed). Agility does not necessarily mean fast, but it is about being more consistent and less error prone to avoid re-work. That means to be agile one needs to observe Lean principles in some way or the other. On the other hand, leanness intuitively should lead to agility due to less errors and smooth performance of work by observing certain workflow. This leads to thinking: Are agile and lean the two sides of same coin?

Rationally thinking they seem to be linked in some way, if not completely the opposite sides of a same coin. Both approaches offer advantages and look like as the pillar for future developments in project management.

Based on above viewpoint, it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of working towards integration of agile and lean methods to develop a balanced approach that offers the best of both worlds. Such efforts will also be aligned to the words of wisdom by Riis (1993, pp.1-2) written some 24 years ago as part of the editorial of International Journal of Project Management, as he said:

“I firmly believe that project management can play a very important role in industry in its striving for increased competitiveness. However, we need to develop further its approaches and methods in order for this to happen, i.e. focus on, for xample, leadership rather than management, the nature of uncertainty and the definition of attention areas rather than standard plans, organizational learning rather than predetermined standard operating procedures, the adjustment of success criteria if the target and stakeholder attitudes are shifting, and the development of a project culture in the organization. In short, we need lean project management.”

Riis, J. O. (1993). Lean project management. International Journal of Project Management, 11(1), 3-4.
Sankaran, S. (2017). Taking Action Using Systems Research. In A Guide to Systems Research (pp.
111-142). Springer Singapore.

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments such as Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Australia, among others. Over his career, he has provided leadership in establishing, designing, and delivering Executive education / Master’s, Training, and Research programs.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community by speaking at various events and writing on emerging issues. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012, one in the International Journal of Production Economics and the other in Journal of Engineering and Technology Management. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.