There are many challenges that project managers face in today’s corporate IT environment of getting products to customers quickly, reliably, and cost-efficiently. Most of these challenges arise from a rapidly changing environment that falls prey to haste, unclear expectations, and arbitrary deadlines—to name only a few factors.
Even when care is taken to define a project’s goals accurately, maintain communication, and meet the deadline, a project manager can find that the final product is over budget, late, and met with lackluster reviews from the customer. Frustration abounds, not only with the project manager but also with stakeholders, internal customers, and external customers.
By using Lean and some Six Sigma principles, you can significantly impact the success of IT projects from the beginning to the end of the life cycle. Lean and Six Sigma are typically thought of in engineering and manufacturing environments but can be blended effectively into IT as well.
This article discusses the benefits of tying Lean and Six Sigma principles into an Agile IT project management environment. Here we discuss the typical Agile IT project life cycle and the differences between Agile and Lean principles. By looking at problem areas in Agile we can see places where Lean can provide solutions. These topics are addressed in this article:
- Traditional Project Management
- Quick study of the Agile Project Management Roadmap
- Comparison of Agile and Lean
- Reasons for blending Lean and Six Sigma into projects
Traditional Project Management
The role of Project Manager is one of a team leader and a liaison between project sponsors and the execution team. The project manager is responsible for the life cycle of the project, namely Planning, Initiating, Evaluating, Validating, and Executing.
Project managers have a focus on tracking, stability, and management during the life of a project. They are also tasked with the project being on time and under budget. And with these responsibilities, many times they must lead a team but have no real authority in making hard decisions for the project such as scope and deadline.
Some of the common symptoms of a project that goes wrong:
- Complicating and conflicting priorities
- Weak or missing user testing and acceptance
- Insufficient monitoring and maintenance after go-live
- Scope creep—project starts with one objective but it grows to bigger ones
- Unrealistic timeline
- No risk consideration
- No strategic alignment
- Wrong solution to the right problem (or vice versa)
What are the causes of these symptoms? Primarily there is one cause for all of these symptoms and it is this: most projects are executing the assumed solution instead of solving the problem.
By using Lean principles and tools you can circumvent the cause of these symptoms and have more successful outcomes with projects.
Agile Project Management
In an environment where Agile principles are being used to manage projects, you find that the typical project management is changed:
- The project manager is replaced with a Scrum Master
- The project sponsor is eliminated and is replaced with the Product Owner
We can compare the traditional project management life cycle of Planning, Initiating, Evaluating, Validating, and Executing to an Agile project management roadmap, which looks like this:
As we look at the stages in the Agile project management roadmap, we can actually see that Lean principles are involved throughout and are tailored by software development. For example, in Stage 1: Vision, the stakeholders are developing a vision and aligning the project with the overall business strategy. This is definitely a Lean concept in that there is a strategic perspective in this stage of planning—and Lean is strategic in its principles.
Stage 2: Product Roadmap looks at the product features while taking a more holistic view of what the customer wants and what you want the product to be for the long-term—this is strategic and, therefore, Lean in nature.
In Stage 3: Release Planning the focus is on the major functionality of the product and the product line and on making plans for the release.
Within release planning, you also have Stage 4: Sprint Planning, which is where Lean is more prevalent than in any of the stages. In the sprint planning stage, sprints–iterative and work execution blocks of one to four weeks–are incorporated. In a sprint, you engage in a Lean cycle of planning, checking, and acting which is comparable to a mini-project life cycle.
Stage 5: Daily Scrum is a daily check-in whereby the players all convene, communicate what is in process, discuss major developments and progress, and assign what is to be done (“to dos”). Next, you have Stage 6: Sprint Review with a demonstration of the working product.
Stage 7: Sprint Retrospective is the end of the roadmap and the point at which all players discuss misses, hits, things that have been done well and what needs to be improved. At this point, another sprint begins.
Comparing Agile and Lean Project Management
Agile project management and Lean project management have both similarities and differences. The differences are where synergy can exist by a blending of the two. Both promote an iterative process of continuous education and improvement. So, the similarities also provide opportunities for the two to be blended and work well together.
In order to see better why they should be blended, let’s look at their differences.
Tactical vs. Strategic
One of the areas where you find a difference is that Agile is tactical, while Lean is strategic. In Agile’s tactical approach and by using self-managed teams without the involvement of project sponsors, there are many places in the project lifecycle where the project can get off course. It is solely the responsibility of the Scrum Master to maintain focus on the business strategy and the goals of the product, whereas by incorporating Lean, which has a more strategic approach, the vision and long-range view of the product are always in the scope.
Philosophy vs. Tools
Another difference between Agile and Lean is that Agile weighs its philosophy, as laid out in the Manifesto, more heavily than in using tools. On the other hand, Lean uses tools that mirror the philosophy in order to strengthen the process.
Software Development vs. Enterprise
A third difference is the industries in which the two principles are applied. Agile fits into and, therefore, is used primarily in software development. Lean is seen as typically being used in a manufacturing environment. However, in fact, Lean can fit into any enterprise environment. Virtually, Lean can be practiced anywhere there are projects that need to be managed.
Reasons for Blending Lean (and Six Sigma) Into Projects
There are some common issues that arise in Agile project management:
- Scope creep
- Disconnect between project team and stakeholders
- Focus on efficiency
- Rigidity to defects and quality problems
- Assumed solutions instead of root cause of problems
Because of the focus on control and stability, there is a rigidity in Agile project management that circumvents correcting defects and quality problems.
Many aspects of Lean solve these problem issues and benefit IT project management. Here are a few:
- Lean has a focus on discovering the root cause
- Lean has a constant consideration for a strategic perspective
- Lean builds in time and tools to address problems
- Lean aims to reduce project and business process rework, therefore reducing expenses
- Lean aims to reduce overall project time
- Lean utilizes the cross-functional team even remotely
When Lean principles are incorporated, the discovery of the root causes becomes a primary focus. In turn, this leads to solving the real problems instead of continually working on assumed solutions.
Lean also incorporates a constant consideration for a strategic perspective that keeps the overall business strategy in front of the project. And, Lean builds both time and tools into the process, thus addressing many issues that can become roadblocks to the success of a project.
By reducing overall project time and using cross-functional teams, Lean principles offer room for more robust solutions. The formation of cross-functional teams has a huge impact on the success of projects because you are making sure that all the people who have the power to make decisions about the project are on the same page.
The article Steps for Tying Lean and Six Sigma in IT Project Management discusses in more detail the functions of Lean and Six Sigma as well as tools to use when incorporating these principles into an Agile environment.