Enabling program success



PMI, INCOSE and MIT team up to find best practices for delivering successful programs.

Wasting time and money shouldn't be dismissed as the cost of doing business on engineering programs. Organizations have the power to cut down on waste, but only if they know where it comes from and how to stop it.

To help organizations reduce program risk and improve ROI, PMI and the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) worked with experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to conduct an in-depth study called Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs.

“The study was the product of a collaboration across three domains of management wisdom: lean management, systems engineering and program management,” says Eric Norman, PMP, PgMP, managing partner at Norman & Norman Consulting, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Mr. Norman is the main PMI contributor to the Joint INCOSE-PMI-MIT Lean Program Management Community of Practice, as well as chair of the PMI committee creating The Standard for Program Management—Third Edition.

The result is a powerful snapshot of not only the key challenges faced on major engineering programs, but also 300 “lean enablers,” or best practices, that effective teams and organizations can use to overcome those challenges.

“Application of lean enablers is designed to reduce and/or eliminate waste,” says Josef Oehmen, PhD, a research scientist at MIT's Lean Advancement Initiative, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. “The program manager can use the challenges and enablers to help identify risks and generate more value from the investment.”


The research team first defined 160 program management challenges, which were collected into 10 themes. Three significant challenges are:

  • Reactive execution: Programs are driven by outside influences, rather than by strategic goals.
  • Lack of accountability: Roles and responsibilities of individuals, teams, projects, staff and organizations aren't clearly defined.
  • Insufficient competency: The knowledge of individuals, teams and the organization is inadequate, not transferred sufficiently or not applied appropriately during the program.



To illustrate their points, the researchers mapped two PMI Project of the Year Award finalists: the Prairie Waters public works project in Aurora, Colorado, USA, which won the award in 2011; and the US$1.15 billion, 80,000-seat Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Texas, USA, a 2010 finalist.

In both cases, researchers found that up to 65 percent of the lean enablers identified in the study had been applied within those programs. “It was a stronger correlation than we even suspected,” says Dr. Oehmen.

The Dallas Cowboys Stadium project, for example, applied strategic supplier relations to proactively avoid conflict and anticipate and mitigate program risk, which helped drive the value stream in alignment with lean enablers. Suppliers provided important input in the very early cost estimation for the stadium project and helped produce an accurate prediction of the final costs.

In the Prairie Waters program, a number of actions were taken to ensure efficient decision-making. A series of chartering workshops at the beginning of the program set foundations for efficient decision-making throughout the program.

Organizational structure was adapted not only to foster collaboration, but also to speed up decision-making. Lastly, the program ensured that the right information required to make decisions and keep up to date was available. Those actions demonstrated alignment with lean enablers focused on pursuing “collaborative and inclusive decision-making that resolves the root causes of issues.”

The researchers also scanned articles about other PMI Project of the Year Award winners and finalists, and found evidence that the lean enablers identified in the study were applied in those programs as well.

“That [shows] that the challenges and enablers we identified in our research were right on target,” Mr. Norman says.


Mr. Norman and Dr. Oehmen encourage program managers and systems engineers to review the enablers and adopt those that make sense for their programs. The study report includes suggestions on how organizations can apply the lean enablers, as well as some of the barriers that may be encountered by practitioners attempting to use the lean enablers. The key to success is to focus on one specific challenge and, once the desired level of improvement is achieved, identify the next challenge to tackle.

“Don't try to do them all at once,” Dr. Oehmen says. “Identify weak spots in your programs and prioritize areas where you'd like to see improvements.”

Once the impact of those initial enablers becomes clear, it should be easier for organizations to advance other improvements that will drive even greater program success. Lean thinking then becomes the way the company does business and builds its strategic competency around delivering value to customers.



Industry and government practitioners in the Joint INCOSE-PMI-MIT Lean Program Management Community of Practice then identified 300 lean enablers that are grouped around these key lean principles:

  • Respect for people
  • Capturing value as defined by the customer
  • Mapping the value stream
  • Maintaining flow through value-adding processes
  • Letting customers' needs determine value
  • Pursuing perfection in all processes

Combined, the program challenges and lean enablers identify potential risks (challenges) and possible mitigation approaches (enablers) that can be applied to the risks. The challenges and enablers can be applied to new programs as well as those that have existed for several years.

The ultimate goal is to use the identified enablers to reduce waste and risk, and in doing so enhance management of engineering programs so they deliver the intended benefits and ROI.


“Waste” is an all-encompassing term for losses that, from a lean thinking perspective, can occur at multiple levels in a program context. Some activities are required but do not directly contribute value to the customer, such as compliance with government regulations or company policies. Other types of non-value-adding activities, however, should be removed because they simply consume resources unnecessarily. For example, unnecessary reports and emails, defects requiring rework, and idle time all represent program burdens and added cost that could be eliminated.

Such waste occurs even in the most mature organizations, including government programs, according to Government Accounting Office audits, Dr. Oehmen says. This also was found by MIT research, he adds.

One of the best ways to make improvements is for program leaders and systems engineers to see themselves as partners, focused jointly on a common goal, says Mr. Norman.

“Collaboration and partnership between these two professional groups makes a huge difference in the conduct of programs,” he says. “It could fundamentally change the way program managers and systems engineers work together in the future.” PM




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