Lean in Practice for Projects

Lean in practice means self-organization with visual management and jidoka. When you’re more organized, it’s more likely that your work will have greater value.

In a previous post I defined lean as a concept for creating self-organization. This means visual management and a “take-things-as-they-come” attitude (jidoka). When a system becomes more organized, you’ll be more likely to see valuable work being created.

Lean In Practice – Visual Management and Jidoka

Visual management and “take things as they come” (jidoka) are two principles. A principle is something that will be achieved. A method tells us how to achieve a principle. Many descriptions of lean are based on methods and not the fundamental principles and this can lead to confusion.

In production, workcells are defined by the flow of material. The workcells can be linked together with a method called Kanban. When the different parts become more linked to each other, the system as a whole becomes more organized. Here is a short clip (1m20s) that demonstrates how Kanban works in production.

Methods are very valuable tools but methods that work well in one context might not work at all in a different one. For example, production methods can seldom be transferred to strategy and development, since there are no recurring repetitive flows.

This is why we use other methods in strategy and development that link together actors and allow them to be more self-organized. For example, when working on projects, daily stand-up meetings in front of a Pulse board may be used for visual management.

Lean In Action – Pulse Methods


In the picture above you can see an activity window on a Pulse board. The window is divided into three parts: to do, in progress and done. The project group meets every day and discusses what they will work on based on what is on the board.

This way of working is called pull. With pull, a demand for results is created in the same way Kanban is used for production. In classic project management, a plan which describes who and what should be done at what time is needed.

To work based on such a plan is called push. The problem with the push principle is that we can’t predict the future. Plans that go far into the future have a high level of insecurity and lead to interference and wastefulness. Management and staff spend their days putting out fires. Pull only plans for a few hours at a time, which leads to less interruptions.

Push is also an example of how an exterior actor prevents self-organization. This doesn’t mean that planning is unnecessary nor impossible – only detailed plans are impossible. Comprehensive planning is possible as long as you are aware that there will always be faults in these plans.

Comprehensive plans are necessary in order to know what should be on the To Do list. With Scrum, a prioritizing backlog is used. With Pulse we work with a comprehensive synchronization plan. However, management of daily work isn’t based off of this plan. Instead, it’s based off of the current needs that are visualized on the Pulse board that’s used during Pulse meetings.

Yellow and Red Post-Its

Planning determines which yellow post-its will be used in the activity window. The red post-it illustrates a way to handle unexpected problems that come up, jidoka. These problems must be handled quickly and efficiently.

When using lean, oftentimes the project members themselves plan and manage their work. They do this through putting up post-its in the activity window and through moving the notes on the board as the work progresses. The appearance of the board tells the group about its current needs and what they have to do in order to move the project forward. By moving the post-its on the board, it’s possible to see lean in action.

Unbalanced Workloads

Workloads within strategy and development are always uneven and need to be balanced. In order to handle this issue, the activities posted in the To Do section are not assigned to any single individual.

Matchmaking between individual and task takes place at the Pulse meeting. Distribution is done by the individuals themselves in the form of taking notes. The role of the project leader is to make sure that no one is overloaded and this can be done by making sure that no one takes more than 1-3 post-its.

Lean In Action Depends on the Context

To summarize, lean in practice can look different depending on the context yet the underlying principles are always the same. When it comes to lean for strategy and development we have defined what we see as the foundation of lean in product development.

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