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Luís Ramalho

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In order to compare and contrast Lean Thinking with Project Management it is essential do define an assessment criteria. These are the decisive aspects and objectives of a project that may deem it a success.

Considering that there are broadly two stages in a project: the delivery and post delivery. Where the former is concerned with doing the project right and the latter with getting the project right. For this post the focus is on the former, thus the assessment criteria described will be regarding the process of handling a project; the delivery.

Project Success Criteria

One of the most common criteria to measure the success of a project is the triple constraint, also known as the Iron Triangle (This term was coined by Dr. Martin Barnes in 1969 for a course entitled ‘Time andMoney in Contract Control’), that consists of time, cost and quality (Olsen 1971). It is of sound judgement to believe that a project that completes on time, within the stipulate budget and adequate quality is a successful one. However, it could be questioned if these aspects suggested by Olsen (1971) almost 50 years ago are still good measurements of a project success. It can be argued that time and cost are often just estimates and quality is not an objective aspect but rather it has different meanings for different people. An example of this is the Sydney Opera House which, in spite of failing all three Iron Triangle elements, can arguably be considered a successful project as it is a world-famous landmark and an icon of architecture (Lim andMohamed 1999). Notwithstanding this reasoning, often these three attributes do lead to a project that is seen as successful. In the next section the contributions of Lean and Project Management to achieve success in the triple constraint will be discussed.

Iron Triangle: Time, Cost and Quality


On the question of time, Lean as described in our previous post Lean Thinking for New Product Introduction is a philosophy that seeks to eliminate waste. In this case, waste would be Non-Value Adding (NVA) activities, delays, transportation and unnecessary movement. However, it is beyond the bounds of possibility to eliminate waste completely. So, this is an endless pursue rather than a objective. In Project Management, which is based more on tools and techniques, the time constraint is more immutable and therefore the tasks are ordered, often in terms of priority, and then executed as competently as possible in order to meet the deadline. PM uses Gantt charts (Wilson 2003) and Scrum boards (Schwaber 2004) for a visual representation of the phases and progress of a project. Finally, on one hand it can be argued that Lean, as a continuing process, would be better suitable for projects that last longer and have similar tasks and on the other hand PM would be better for isolated or ‘one-off’ type of projects where the variables are unique.


In terms of cost, Project Management (PM) has mainly three areas where it seeks to control the costs, these are:

  1. Cost estimation; where there is an attempt to roughly calculate the total cost of the project. For example, analogous estimating (Rad 2002) which estimates the cost by of one project based on the cost of a previous project.
  2. Cost budgeting; where the project manager attempts to aggregate the total cost of the project in order to form a basic level for the costs; and
  3. Cost control; where all the elements that might impact the cost of the project are limited as much as possible employing cost management tools. Lean tries to control the costs of a project by making sure everyone in the organisation sticks to standardised work and continuous improvement by reporting and correcting issues as soon as possible. Furthermore, if there are wastes that are causing extra costs, e.g. an overhead cost or expense, Lean can eliminate these and by doing so will reduce costs.


As far as quality is concerned, Project Management is a more linear process than Lean. Starting with PM, the Project Management Institute (2013) in their PMBOK Guide divided project quality management into three processes: quality planning, quality assurance, and quality control. Firstly, a quality management plan is elaborated during quality planning. Secondly, project audits take place in the quality assurance stage in order to determine if a project is following the procedures and policies of the project and organisation. Finally, on the quality control step, inspections are made in order to determine if the project was done in line with the standards. In the case of Lean the goal is to eliminate muda, rather than inspecting the project at the last stage, Lean tries to inspect early in the process. Using value stream mapping it is possible to identify and prevent defects from the beginning. Furthermore, with the standardised work and the constant implementation and enforcement of the best practices, Lean ensures that quality is continuously improved.

Impact on Stakeholders

The impact on stakeholders is one of the factors to have in consideration for a project. In fact, meeting or even exceeding these expectations can deem a project successful; if it also achieves the objectives. In Project Management one of the goals is to monitor the expectations of the stakeholders. This can be done with a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) that addresses the stakeholder’s concern, this KPI should be made aware to the stakeholder and updated frequently (Ogunlana et al. 2010). Furthermore, just the fact that the project is complying with the Iron Triangle will make the stakeholders feel that the project is going according to plan. Nonetheless, these will have to be communicated to the stakeholders and therefore interpersonal skills will play an important role. Lean will try and satisfy the stakeholders by delivering an impeccable product with no time wasted and lowest cost without jeopardising quality (Oppenheim,Murman and Secor 2011). Oppenheim (2004) argues that Lean helps the employees involved in the design stage of product development by allowing them to have an uninterrupted flow. By doing that, it increases the chances that the work will be done with focus and the final design should be representative of the extra attention given to the project’s tasks.

Internal Success

Internal success, in spite of the double entendre the “company comes first” (Field 2014), is naturally extremely important for any business. As an example, this success can mean a satisfied workforce, meeting the intended business benefit or simply a positive learning outcome for the company. The main goal of a business is “to make money in the present as well as in the future” (Goldratt, Fox and Grasman 1986). Thus, it could be argued that a project success is closely connected with the company’s success. Particularly, it is crucial that the project is aligned with the strategy of the organisation. That is one of the tasks of the project manager: to make sure that the project is leading to an improvement for the company in one way or another. ProjectManagement could, for example, keep track of data regarding projects that were successful and use that to improve the next project. In fact, that is what Lean proposes as well with their continuous improvement philosophy. Proper documentation should be kept by project managers (Todorovic et al. 2015) in order to keep records and make it possible to analyse the data at a later stage. Regarding the satisfied workforce, Lean is considered to improve the process flow along with the employee morale (Mor, Singh and Bhardwaj 2016) by promoting transparency over the project (Eskerod and Riis 2009), standardisation of the tools and methods (H.McManus andMillard 2004), and training employees (Garza 2005). Likewise, in ProjectManagement one of the crucial tasks is to keep the team members in consideration. This includes assigning new tasks to people that have been doing the same task repeatedly, making the work more enjoyable and generally being creative in dealing with the complexity of the human nature.


In terms of meeting the safety standards,Mor, Singh and Bhardwaj (2016) state that these are not usually taken into account by Lean. This interpretation contrasts with that of (Aziz and Hafez 2013) who argue that if Lean is implemented correctly it will lead to “dramatic improvements in safety”. The reason being that Lean is a continuous improvement philosophy, in the pursue of perfection, and therefore will advocate that a non-safe environment is not perfect and should be eliminated. In other words, danger should be considered a waste because it does not add any value whereas safety does. Regarding ProjectManagement, it attempts to deal with safety issues by creating a health and safety policy that seeks to prevent accidents from happening (Robson et al. 2007). In spite of the fact that these concerns arise further down the product life cycle than the design stage, it is important to have them in mind during the whole product development process. Furthermore, PM uses tools and methods to measure and confirm that the health and safety policy is being effective. These can involve inspections, an evaluation of the performance of the health and safety policy and frequent audits (Helmreich, Klinect andWilhelm 2017; Zhou, Bai and Sun 2014).


Sustainability is increasingly becoming one of the most important topics of discussion for businesses worldwide (Silvius et al. 2012). Therefore, it is crucial for a business to be aware of social and environmental issues when developing a product. As far as Lean is concerned, the organisation should include environmental waste as part of other Lean wastes and leverage it in order to take aim at “environmental ‘blind spots’ ” that occur with fixed expenses or indirect costs of running a business (Mor, Singh and Bhardwaj 2016). With respect to Project Management, it is necessary to seek a product development that guarantees that the outputs, outcomes and benefits of the project are sustainable during the product life cycle and also during product development.


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