Tips for an agile leader

from lean to agile project management


Companies need to improve their projects by using an approach other than the traditional project management processes. Traditional project management has a few problems: permanent environmental changes, lack of project management knowledge, lack of time management, lots of multitasking, and so forth.

Lean thinking defines a technique to make projects more efficient. This philosophy was founded in the 1990s and was mostly applied to massive production projects; moreover, in 2001, software developers defined the approach now known as agile software development.

From these two philosophies—lean and agile—we will discuss tips, which will help project managers manage efficient projects, for the production and IT sectors, and also for whatever kind of projects they manage.

The tips for an agile leader provide a practical approach to managing projects, taking into account effective project management tools.

The two main objectives of this presentation are:

  • To speed up projects without increasing costs or reducing quality.
  • To look for efficiency and remove excess.

The Lean Approach

“Lean thinking,” “lean production” and “lean project management” are terms that define techniques to make projects more efficient. This philosophy was born in the 1990s at Toyota and was mostly applied to massive production projects.

This philosophy gained the attention of many academic experts around the world. These academicians (e.g., J.P. Womack, D.T. Jones, and D. Roos) studied the Japanese processes and put the concepts into the five following lean principles (Lean Enterprise Institute):

  1. Specify value from the standpoint of the end customer by product family.
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream for each product family, eliminating, whenever possible, those steps that do not create value.
  3. Make the value-creating steps occur in tight sequence, so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer.
  4. As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  5. As value is specified, value streams are identified, wasted steps are removed, and flow and pull are introduced. Begin the process again and continue it until a state of perfection is reached in which perfect value is created with no waste.

Since the introduction of this methodology, many studies, books, and articles have applied lean thinking concepts to international companies.

The fundamental idea of the concept “lean” is that there cannot be “waste.” The main source of failure in projects originates from this lack of “accuracy” (i.e., in the presence of waste, which does not generate value).

Two “opposite” words define much of this approach to project management: “value” and “waste.” In simple terms, this approach is intended to maximize value and eliminate waste. In addition, this thought fits in the modern stream to find the value of projects, not in the minds of their designers, but in the minds of end users and customers.

The Agile Approach

In 2001, software developers published the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” to define the approach now known as agile software development (Manifesto for Agile Software Development):

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others to do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Twelve principles underlie the Agile Manifesto, including:

1. Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software

2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development

3. Working software is delivered frequently (in weeks rather than months)

4. Working software is the principal measure of progress

5. Sustainable development, which is able to maintain a constant pace

6. Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers

7. Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (colocation)

8. Projects are built around motivated individuals who should be trusted

9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design

10. Simplicity

11. Self-organizing teams

12. Regular adaptation to changing circumstances

Tips for an Agile Leader

From the two philosophies of lean and agile, we will discuss tips for project managers, which will help them create efficient projects, not just for the production and IT sectors, but also for whatever kind of projects they work on.

The following 10 tips will be discussed during the presentation (Lledó, 2012):

1. Don't add waste to projects:

  • The excess of information, unnecessary attributes, or the excessive complexity, are examples of wastes that should not be added to the project.
  • Some tools to mitigate those wastes, to better know our client and the project scope are: iterative meetings between client and technicians, questionnaires to identify requirements, and budgets that are broken down by deliverable.
  • The excess and lack of information attempt against the project's profitability. We have to give our clients only what they asked for.
  • We should not keep adding additional attributes when the client doesn't pay for them anymore. Adding more technology or functionality doesn't mean more value for the client. Sometimes, simpler things add more value.
  • We should avoid excessive complexity. Otherwise, our projects will have: more costs, more errors, more misunderstandings, and more risks.
  • Finally, a plan is useful only if it will be used.

2. You must respect client deliverables

  • A client is not only the user of a good and service, or the sponsor of a project. We should also consider as a client the members of our internal team and the external approving entities.
  • We have to link the predecessor and successor activities such that the internal client gets involved early in the process with the team that is working in the predecessor activity. We should also seek and foster a brief collaboration period between the team and the client.
  • The preliminary prototypes are usually very effective in involving the approval authorities in the formal project approval process.
  • Lastly, providing information ahead of time to the approval authority could be a good strategy to obtain preliminary feedback on the changes required on the project.

3. Don't waste time during meetings

  • Meetings that are programmed with many invitees and with an endless agenda are part of a non-agile culture.
  • A project-oriented enterprise demands short and intense meetings, scheduled only when they are necessary.
  • Coordination meetings should only be made to facilitate the uninterrupted project's execution. While in collaboration meetings, only technical problems should be discussed.
  • Long and periodical meetings that are spaced, for example, on a monthly or weekly basis are generally the cause of Muda. For example, reducing duration and frequency, and having daily ten-minute meetings could eliminate this waste.
  • Lastly, there are times when not having a meeting is the key for a successful meeting.

4. Don't forget risk project management

  • Performing a risk analysis before starting with the project execution is being proactive by mitigating future problems, which will help you get a more agile and efficient project.
  • It is clear that risks cannot be eliminated. However, we can always manage them through good planning, identification, qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, response planning, monitoring, and controlling.
  • With the qualitative risk analysis you can detect the most significant risks that could affect the project costs, quality and deadlines, with the purpose of prioritizing and implementing response plans to those risks, to mitigate them.

5. Take away traditional methods

  • If your company is steeped in inefficient and traditional processes, why not change them? If your answer is “because tradition does not allow it” then you should try to lift those processes. You may discover that this aversion to change, common in many organizations, is not hard to eradicate.
  • On the other hand, it is extremely important to get the client involved in the progress of the project. The frozen stages scheme is a very useful approach to accomplish this because project progress is defined cooperatively with the customer.
  • The hardest part of this scheme is to understand what the blurry customer needs during the initial stages of a project. The following tools can be used in this case:

    - Iterative feedback between technical team and client.

    - Analysis of preliminary prototypes.

    - Involvement of senior management early on in any process.

    - Placing developers in the customer's shoes (pseudo clients).

6. Avoid long written texts, instead use figures

  • To write long texts stating the status of our project is inefficient. Instead, we should use graphic methods that will definitely bring more attention: colors, pictures, symbols, tables, prototypes, etc.
  • For senior management to care about deviations in a project, it is important to communicate the exceptions, instead of the similarities.
  • If we could implement a visual status of exceptions, it would be very useful in order to identify priorities and be proactive while eradicating the problems affecting the project.

7. Don't re-invent the wheel, start from standard processes

  • If processes and traditional rules work well together…do not touch them. Leave creativity for more important things.
  • But…how? Didn't we say in commandment #5 to take away traditional methods?
  • It works like the Yin and the Yang, two opposed forces that complement each other and are present in all things. If something can be improved, improve it (commandment #5) and if a process works well, why touch it (commandment #7)?
  • You can be creative by following standard processes.
  • Finally, if you want to apply an efficient process management into your project, do not invent everything from scratch, and start with what is already available and has been proven on the market to be successful, such as A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

8. Manage reserves and turns, avoiding long lines.

  • We need to try working with a system of reservations and turns instead of a first in, first out model which ignores priorities.
  • For several projects it would be better if a process of electronic files is implemented instead of a physical sequential process.
  • To streamline organization processes does not mean to have less control.

9. Don't forget critical resources

  • While planning for future projects to be managed, it is not enough to work with the critical path method. This traditional approach should also take into consideration frequent problems faced by projects, such as:

    - Risks associated with resources availability.

    - Risks associated with the use of new technologies.

  • It is usually more important to consider what are the critical resources associated with the activities than to know if an activity is or is not part of the critical path.
  • One tool to incorporate risks of critical resources when planning for contingencies is the Monte Carlo simulation.

10. Sanctify project prioritization

  • To work on multiple tasks simultaneously without any plan does not correspond to an agile business. Instead, to plan projects with dedicated teams on a priority basis allows adding value to the company.
  • To fulfill commandment #10, “sanctify priority projects,” we should create a list of priority projects or tasks based on the potential of the company and focus resources on those activities with higher added value.

Lean Enterprise Institute. (2009). Retrieved from

Lledó, Pablo. (2012). Gestión ágil de proyectos: Lean project management. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford.

Manifesto for Agile Software Development. (2001). Retrieved from

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Pablo Lledó, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE



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