Feb 08, 2012 (03:02 AM EST)
Project Management Gets Lean

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Technology projects can make or break a business, which makes IT project management a big deal. Unfortunately, the pressure for such projects to succeed may be blinding IT and business leaders to the benefits of failure. The emerging concept of lean principles in project management encourages the idea of failing fast--that is, before large investments are made.

The general idea behind a lean enterprise is efficient application of resources and continuous improvement. A real-world example is Toyota's just-in-time manufacturing approach. Eric Ries' book The Lean Startup popularized lean with young companies, but terms such as "minimum viable product" have made their way into the general business lexicon, and lean startup lessons about batch sizes, metrics, and continual learning are starting to influence mainstream project management teams and the business leaders who work with them.

The lean approach focuses on the entire outcome of a project and whether you should even be doing that project, in addition to the traditional project management focus on controlling activities. Much like agile development principles, lean startup principles measure ongoing results but then challenge those requirements as needed, as part of a build-measure-learn loop. A true picture of success or failure starts to emerge--and a true picture of failure may induce even the most intractable project sponsors to make significant changes before things go off the rails.

For example, usage numbers are frequently trotted out to show that all has gone well with a system project. "They're using the system; they must love it," the thinking goes. This metric will go up and to the right as the system becomes more entrenched. But that's a "vanity metric," because most any system, as it becomes entrenched, will add users and usage.

A better metric is one that answers the question, Is this project fixing the problem or creating the business result that it was intended to? For example, are repeat customers coming as a result of the configuration of the new CRM system? That is, after all, why business leaders funded the project. This is a metric outside of IT's control, but it's the one that matters. A metric like this one can be used for early intervention. It's a way of telling that the project isn't succeeding even if all milestones have been met. A metric like this one can help you either modify your approach to an ineffective project or cancel it--either way, the company benefits.

One warning: Lean requires learning and the ability to say, "Yes, we're failing." It probably won't help organizations whose cultures let managers protect their egos.

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