An overview of The guide to lean enablers for managing engineering programs

Edited by Josef Oehmen, PhD Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Taking on large-scale engineering programs is one of the most difficult, risky, and, when done well, rewarding undertakings a government or company can attempt. It not only pushes the envelope of what is possible, but defines a new envelope. It generates capabilities, technologies, products, and systems that are unique, have never been available before, and generate massive societal benefits— from hybrid cars to a trip to the moon, from road networks to GPS navigation, and from carbon-neutral electricity sources to the smart city.

On the other hand, such programs present formidable challenges. As an example, consider the U.S. Department of Defense engineering development programs (US GAO, 2009) (Reports of civil large-scale engineering programs paint a similar picture (Canterelli, Flyvbjerg, Molin & van Wee, 2010). The accumulated cost overrun of the largest 96 engineering programs has reached nearly US$300 billion, a staggering amount, and the average schedule overrun is close to two years (Exhibit 1). Clearly, both cost and schedule underperformance is not sustainable; so, what are the major challenges in these large-scale engineering programs and how can they be countered?

Engineering Programs are Plagued by Massive Cost Overruns (GAO, 2009)

Exhibit 1: Engineering Programs are Plagued by Massive Cost Overruns (GAO, 2009)

When engineering programs of this scale and complexity were first attempted in the 1940s, it did not just start one new discipline, but three: operations research, project and program management, and systems engineering (Johnson, 1997). In the last 70 years, each discipline has made major advances: There is an endless number of books on each one of them. Individuals can get a master's degree in all these disciplines, subscribe to magazines, and join various professional societies dedicated to their continuous development; however, practitioners will be hard-pressed to find any source of information that integrates the wisdom from all three fields.

The Joint MIT-PMI-INCOSE Lean in Program Management Community of Practice (CoP) set out to close this gap and re-unite the expertise from the three fields (Exhibit 2). Using the operations management theory of Lean Thinking, the CoP (re-)integrated program management and systems engineering to develop a set of unique, relevant, and actionable recommendations for program managers: The Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs.

The Three Foundations of this Guide

Exhibit 2: The Three Foundations of this Guide

For the past year, the CoP, composed of selected subject matter experts from industry, government, and academia, studied the application of “lean principles” to challenges encountered on programs. From the beginning, the development of the Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs was driven by three principles:

  • Ensure the highest level of applicability of the results to industry and government program management practitioners;
  • Operate as a joint MIT-PMI-INCOSE working group to unite the best of lean management, program management, and systems engineering; and, at the same time,
  • Bring subject matter experts from industry, government, and academia together.

To this end, the CoP executed the following development and validation activities:

  • The content of the final study report was developed during a one-year project by the subject matter experts, with weekly project meetings that were moderated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the role of the neutral broker.
  • The program management challenges and Lean Enablers incorporate both the practical experience of the subject matter experts, as well as the latest knowledge from academic literature on engineering program management.
  • Every month, findings and progress were reported to the larger CoP of around 130 practitioners and their feedback guided the development process.
  • During the year, four workshops were organized (one through MIT, two at INCOSE conferences, one at the PMI® Global Congress—North America) to engage in customer and stakeholder dialogue and elicit feedback from over 180 participants.
  • Two surveys of industry and government practitioners validated the findings of the group's work, one targeted at prioritizing the program management challenges, and the other at validating the suggested Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs.
  • The Lean Enablers were additionally validated by comparing the CoP's recommendations with the management practices of highly successful programs.

The CoP identified 160 challenges that can impact program success and benefits realization; then, the CoP explored Lean Enablers for addressing the identified challenges.

The main engineering program management challenges were grouped together within 10 thematic clusters. A summary is presented in Exhibit 3.

Summary of 10 Major Themes of Challenges

Exhibit 3- Summary of 10 Major Themes of Challenges

The Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs—actionable best practices—were aligned with the six core Lean Principles and are summarized in Exhibit 4.

Overview of Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs

Exhibit 4 - Overview of Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs

The Impact of Using Lean Enablers in Programs

During the first phase of the validation, the CoP analyzed to what extent “best in class” programs were employing the suggested Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs. The community relied on published program documentation, studies, and application materials submitted to Project Management Institute (PMI) for its Project of the Year Award. The three highly successful programs, where detailed information was available, used between 60% and 75% of the recommended enablers, which is a very encouraging result. Even in those programs where the community had to rely on rather brief, publicly available documentation, evidence of the programs using about 30% of the Lean Enablers appeared in the documentation. The review also revealed that all Lean Enablers were used at least once and some were more popular than others. Among the most often-used Lean Enablers are:

  • Build a program culture based on respect for people (Lean Enabler 1.1)
  • Frequently engage the stakeholders throughout the program life cycle (Lean Enabler 2.3)
  • Develop a communications plan (Lean Enabler 3.11)
  • For every program, use a program manager role to lead and integrate the program from start to finish (Lean Enabler 4.3)
  • Proactively manage uncertainty and risk to maximize program benefit (Lean Enabler 6.6)

This relatively “rough” analysis was followed up by a detailed survey on the performance of successful and unsuccessful programs, as well as the degree to which they use the Lean Enablers. Exhibit 5 shows the significant difference in performance between programs considered “successful” and those considered “not successful.” Not surprisingly, successful programs on average overachieved in all performance dimensions, whereas unsuccessful programs fell significantly short.

“Successful” Programs Show Significantly Higher Performance than “Unsuccessful” Programs

Exhibit 5: “Successful” Programs Show Significantly Higher Performance than “Unsuccessful” Programs

So, the obvious question is: Do the successful programs use more of the Lean Enablers more regularly? Exhibit 6 summarizes the strong survey results: Across the board, successful programs are ahead in using the Lean Enablers.

Successful Programs Make Better Use of Lean Enablers (Steuber, 2012)

Exhibit 6: Successful Programs Make Better Use of Lean Enablers (Steuber, 2012)

The application of the Lean Enablers allows:

  • Positioning programs for success by creating a program culture with highly dedicated and motivated professionals.
  • Focusing programs on delivering the value and benefits that will delight your customer stakeholders.
  • Eliminating waste from the program and minimize necessary, non-value-adding activities.
  • Creating seamless integration between process steps and integration, leading to process flow and customer pull.
  • Institutionalizing excellence by constantly striving to improve and perfect the delivery of value to customer stakeholders.

Applicability of the Lean Enablers

Applicability to Different Types of Programs

Lean Thinking aims to create the best value for the program stakeholders, with minimum waste and in a minimum amount of time. This is common to all types of programs: commercial and government, engineering and social transformation, large and small. The Lean Enablers presented in the final study report were developed from the challenges observed in recent large-scale engineering programs, from millions to several billions of dollars, such as aerospace and defense programs, systems or missions, large-scale infrastructure developments, development and integration of complex IT systems, and development of new commercial product lines. Because most of the example programs were ultimately contracted by a government customer, the challenges may reflect such programs.

Government and commercial programs place different importance on the challenges and, therefore, on the resultant enablers, but the CoP believes this difference to be largely a matter of priority, not fundamental applicability.

The group of subject matter experts who developed the enablers made a significant effort to ensure the enablers were applicable to other types of programs also, most importantly organizational change programs (such as cost reduction, restructuring, post-merger integrations, etc.), as well as social transformation programs (such as reducing childhood obesity or preventing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder). Because large-scale engineering programs are more often than not large-scale socio-technical programs due to the significant influence they exert (re-defining the ways companies of the program enterprise work together, opening new production and service facilities, improving quality of life of users, etc.), it becomes clear why the enablers presented here also apply to important aspects of organizational and social transformation programs.

Applicability to Different Life-Cycle Phases of Engineering Systems

The applicability of the Lean Enablers to managing and improving engineering programs rises and falls with the systems engineering content of the programs (INCOSE, 2011). Although several aspects of the Lean Enablers are applicable throughout the entire life cycle of an engineering system, all of them apply to the early phases of concept generation and development (Exhibit 7).

Life-Cycle Phases of an Engineering System and Applicability of Lean Enablers

Exhibit 7: Life-Cycle Phases of an Engineering System and Applicability of Lean Enablers

The overall goal of the Lean Enablers in the early phases is to focus the program on achieving the maximum overall life-cycle benefits for the customer stakeholders—not locally optimize any particular life-cycle phase or to any particular stage gate.

Although all Lean Enablers relating to Lean Principles 6, 3, and 5 apply to all life-cycle phases, some of the Lean Enablers addressing Lean Principles 1, 2, and 4 are specific to the concept generation and development phases (see Exhibit 8).

Applicability of Lean Enablers in System Life-Cycle Phases

Exhibit 8: Applicability of Lean Enablers in System Life-Cycle Phases

Applicability of Lean Enablers to the Management of Engineering Projects

A significant fraction of the Lean Enablers is also applicable to the management of engineering projects under the following circumstances:

All of the Lean Enablers apply to the project, if the project is a program. This may sound tautological, but in reality there is a significant variance in the perception and use of the terms “projects” and “programs” in both industry and government. This document follows PMI's understanding of the differences between project management and program management. Program management work is described in detail in PMI's The Standard for Program Management—Third Edition, exposure draft version (PMI, in press). It is aligned with a large-scale Role Delineation Study conducted by PMI in 2010 that has been documented and published as part of PMI's Program Management Professional (PgMP)® Exam Content Outline (PMI, 2010). This document clearly describes the work in terms of domains, tasks, skills, knowledge, and competencies that set the programs and roles of program managers apart from those of projects and project managers.

If a project executes program-level activities, the corresponding Lean Enablers apply to that program. Some organizations do not have a program management organization, so that projects execute most or all of the program management functions as well. Many programs also start out as projects and evolve into programs during their execution. If a program executes activities that fall within any of the five program management performance domains, the corresponding Lean Enablers apply to the project as well. The performance domains are (1) program strategy alignment, (2) program benefits management, (3) program stakeholder engagement, (4) program governance, and (5) program life-cycle management.

The Lean Enablers address dependencies and interfaces between projects and programs. Many programs suffer from a lack of defined boundaries, poor integration of processes and benefits, and no coordination of the projects within the program. The Lean Enablers help both program managers and project managers to identify and properly define boundaries to enable integration across these interfaces and coordination of mutual responsibilities. Therefore, the Lean Enablers can serve as a starting point for a structured review and optimization of the integration between the projects within the program and the program itself, as well as between the projects within one program. In particular, all Lean Enablers addressing the Program Life-Cycle Management performance domain have a direct impact on projects.

Relationship to the INCOSE Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering

The INCOSE Lean Systems Engineering Working Group (INCOSE,) first published the Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering under the leadership of Bohdan Oppenheim and Deborah Secor in 2009 (Oppenheim, Murmum, & Secor, 2009). The results formed an important input for the work of the CoP on Lean in Program Management, which developed the Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs.

All of the 147 enablers published as the Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering were integrated into the 329 enablers for program management. Minor edits were applied to make the formulations applicable to both Program Management and Systems Engineering.

The Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering received the 2011 Shingo Award for Operational Excellence and the 2010 INCOSE Product of the Year Award. They have been widely disseminated to nearly 2000 individuals in about 50 workshops, seminars, and lectures delivered in 12 countries on three continents.

The book Lean for Systems Engineering with Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering by Bohdan Oppenheim (2011) contains detailed explanations of each of the 147 enablers, with examples, value- promoted, waste-prevented, implementation suggestions, lagging factors, and reading lists. A video lecture, a PowerPoint presentation, a reference guide, a promotional brochure, case studies, a student competition, as well the mapping of the 147 enablers onto 26 INCOSE and ISO/IEC 15288 Systems Engineering processes can be found on the web page of the INCOSE Lean Systems Engineering Working Group.

Availability of the Final Study Report

MIT-PMI-INCOSE will be publishing the final study report shortly. Look for announcements in upcoming communications from each of the organizations.

Notices and Acknowledgments

The Guide to Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs. Edited by Josef Oehmen, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founder and academic co-chair of the CoP

Josef Oehmen, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founder and academic co-chair of the CoP

Bohdan “Bo” W. Oppenheim, PhD, Loyola Marymount University

Deborah Secor, Rockwell Collins

Eric Norman, Norman & Norman Consulting; Chair PMI Standard for Program Management—Third edition

Eric Rebentisch, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Joseph A. Sopko, Siemens Corporation

Marc Steuber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Technical University of Munich

Rick Dove, Stevens Institute of Technology

Kambiz Moghaddam, EdD, The Boeing Company

Steve McNeal, United Launch Alliance

Mark Bowie, The Boeing Company, industry co-chair of the CoP

Bill Altman, Battelle

John Driessnack, Management Concepts


Oppenheim, B.W. (2011).: Lean for Systems Engineering with Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley

Cantarelli, C. C., Flyvbjerg, B., Molin, E. J.E. & van Wee, B., 2010). Cost overruns in large-scale transportation infrastructure projects: Explanations and their theoretical embeddedness. European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research, 10(1), 5–18

INCOSE (2011) Systems Engineering Handbook, v. 3.2.2, San Diego, CA: INCOSE

Johnson, S. B. 1997. Three approaches to big technology: Operations research, systems engineering, and project management, Technology and Culture 38(4), 891–919.

Kinscher, K. (2011). Identification of Lean Enablers for Program Management. Master's thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and RWTH Aachen. Retrieved from

Lean Systems Engineering Working Group (2009) Retrieved from

Oehmen, J., Rebentisch, E., & Kinscher, K. (2011). Program Management for Large-Scale Engineering Programs. LAI Whitepaper Series “Lean Product Development for Practitioners,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from

Oppenheim, B. (2011). Lean for Systems Engineering with Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering. Wiley.

Oppenheim, B., Murman, E., Secor, D. (2011). Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering. Systems Engineering, 14(1), 9–55.

Project Management Institute (2010). The Program Management Professional (PgMP)® Exam Content Outline. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute .(in press) The Standard for Program Management—Third Edition, exposure draft version. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Steuber, M. (2012). Success Criteria and Enabler for Engineering Programs. Master's thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and TU Munich. Retrieved from

United States Government Accountability Office (2009). Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs: Report to Congressional Committees. GAO-09-326SP.

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.

©2012 Josef Oehmen
Published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2012 - Marseille, France



Related Content


Publishing or acceptance of an advertisement is neither a guarantee nor endorsement of the advertiser's product or service. View advertising policy.