Agile and Lean Project Management: What You Need to Know

As a project manager, you face challenges every day. You’re expected to deliver quality work on time and on budget, with requirements that are constantly changing. In fast-paced industries like software development, traditional forms of project management — which plan for months or years in the future and use Gantt charts and other spreadsheet-based tools to gather data — can be holding you back from achieving the results you need. 

Agile and Lean project management are two methodologies for managing projects that align with the needs of modern project managers. Read to learn how Agile and Lean project management can help you stay up-to-date, make smarter decisions, and add more value to your role.

Agile Project Management

The term "Agile project management" isn't limited to one approach or practice. Kanban, Scrum, and XP can all be included under the Agile project management umbrella. All of those approaches are rooted in the Agile methodology, an iterative method of managing the design and build activities of a process, in a highly flexible and interactive manner. 

Agile project management began in Agile software development as a way to adapt more quickly to change by delivering in smaller batch sizes, rather than huge releases. At the core of Agile development are these main concepts:

Iterative Development

Agile development breaks product development work into small increments, minimizing the amount of up-front planning and design. Instead of aiming for a moving target that is months or years in the future, Agile project managers work with teams to break work into small, manageable chunks. These iterations may take a few days or a few weeks to complete, depending on the piece of work. This iterative form of development minimizes risk and allows for flexibility in the development process. The goal for each of these iterations is to create a piece of value, with minimal bugs, at the end of each iteration. In this method, working software is the primary measure of progress.

Efficient Communication

For project managers, the Agile development cycle allows for better communication. During the iterations, Agile project managers communicate directly with the people or teams doing the work (making necessary allowances for the time zone differences of global teams), and stay up to date on any relevant information pertaining to the delivery of that particular piece of value. This allows them to be significantly more focused on the actual work at hand, than if they were managing a much larger, much more complex piece of work. 

Agile project management allows project managers to add more value to teams, by using their time and energy optimizing the effort of teams and helping to remove any obstacles blocking the delivery of value, rather than updating spreadsheets.

Focus on Quality

Agile project management can also help improve the quality of work. After each iterative piece of value is delivered, Agile teams reflect on their learnings from that iteration, typically through a meeting called a retrospective. Then, they work to develop ways to improve quality and enhance product development agility. Agile project managers can help teams determine which specific tools and techniques, such as automation, pair programming, and test-driven development, can help them improve the way they work.

Lean Project Management

Lean project management is a method of project management rooted in Lean methodology. The differences between the Lean and Agile project management methodologies relate to the differences between Agile and Lean — namely, Agile was developed to optimize the efforts of software development teams, whereas Lean was developed to optimize entire manufacturing value streams. Today, Agile and Lean are used in many disciplines of knowledge work, at all levels of an organization. For more on the differences between Agile and Lean, watch this webinar.

Lean project managers rely on a few tools to help them prioritize and manage work:

Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping is the Lean tool Toyota used to define and optimize the various steps involved in getting a product, service, or value-adding project from start to finish. A typical value stream mapping exercise identifies the current and future states of a workflow, as well as all of the activities that enter into and out of the workflow so that value can be delivered. Visualizing the flow of value makes complex processes simpler and more tangible, giving everyone involved a clear understanding of how value travels through a team, organization, or supply chain.

Defining the various parts of the value stream is a key component of any Lean transformation, because it can surface inefficiencies blocking the flow of value to the customer. Any Lean leader — from a project manager to a senior executive — can use value stream mapping to understand problems and hypothesize solutions in context with the rest of the organization.

A3 Thinking

A3 thinking is an incredibly valuable tool in the Lean project manager’s arsenal. A3 thinking is a structured problem solving approach that promotes intentional continuous improvement. This method of defining, analyzing, and developing hypotheses around a problem is called A3 because of the notion that each idea should be small and manageable enough to fit onto one piece of A3 paper (which is slightly longer than standard printer paper).

The A3 approach is based upon Edwards Deming’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) model. It encourages organizations to clearly and accurately define each problem, then develop a hypothesis to test to resolve it. Most A3 methods also include a cost of delay analysis, which helps project managers and teams make decisions about how to prioritize work.

Kanban

LeanKit | Agile and Lean Project Management | Online Kanban Board

Kanban is a visual method of workflow management that allows teams to visualize, prioritize, and improve upon their work. Kanban helps teams (and project managers) harness the power of visual information by using sticky notes on a whiteboard to create a “picture” of their work. According to our research, about 83% of teams practicing Lean use Kanban to manage their work. 

Kanban boards — like the one shown above — can help project managers stay up to date on all relevant work information at a glance, without having to interrupt their teams for information about status, bottlenecks, blockers, etc. This means that project managers can focus on optimizing flow for delivery, and teams can focus on creating value for the customer. Learn more about Kanban here.

In Short

Agile and Lean project management methodologies allow project managers to break work into more manageable, more measurable pieces, allowing teams to deliver faster with higher quality. As a result, project managers can add more value to and eliminate waste in their roles — a powerful combination for today's software development team leaders.

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