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Lean and Agile for PPM present opportunity, but challenges await

Incorporating Lean and Agile principles into project and portfolio management methodologies requires some changes.

Organizations embracing Lean and Agile methodologies for their software development projects have had to make some changes in the way they manage the application lifecycle. Accordingly, incorporating Lean and Agile principles into project and portfolio management methodologies will require some changes as well, industry observers say.

Lean and Agile principles present “a gnarly problem for portfolio management,” said Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, a project management consultancy in Boston. “The problem is speed and velocity; Agile projects go fast and people get things done quickly.”

But most enterprise project and portfolio management tools, Johnson said, incorporate an “almost draconian” style of management. “Going back 40 years, what happened is things would fail, people would put tools and compliance and governance on top, and things still failed,” he said. “It’s a reaction to things gone badly. Every time things go badly we want to layer things on. That’s why Lean is good—it takes away the layers and really solves issues.”

According to a report by Margo Visitacion, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., project portfolio management (PPM) tools have gotten easier to use and gather a lot of information, “but often it’s more information than what you need—akin to telling you how to build the watch when all you want is the time.”

Implementing Lean principles may have just gotten a little easier. The Guide to Lean Enablers for Managing Engineering Programs identifies 300 “Lean enablers,” or best practices, that organizations can implement to reduce waste and ensure project and program success. It was made available in May by The Project Management Institute (PMI), the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) and a joint team of researchers. 

Steve Townsend, director of global alliances and networks at PMI, said an executive briefing on the guide at the institute’s global congress in France was greeted with enthusiasm. PMI also plans to present the principles at its upcoming conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.

PMI will continue to work with INCOSE and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lean Advancement Initiative, which also collaborated on the guide, to “identify areas where organizations are particularly challenged and see if the application of Lean enablers helps performance in those areas.” While PMI’s global standard guide, the Product Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), must go through the process set forth by the American National Standards Institute when it makes changes, Townsend expects the fourth edition will incorporate some of the Lean enablers identified in the guide.  

But he stressed that while many of the PMBOK practices have not been called Lean per se, “Lean principles have been demonstrated in the context of our programs for many years.” For example, he said, “Project management is a team and people discipline, recognizing different levels of expertise, different abilities, different perspectives to ensure programs and projects achieve results. The concept of Lean has always been reflected in program and project management.”

The bottom line, he said, is change is constant. “Project and program management are disciplines, but as people and organizations change you have to constantly review and evaluate how practices and processes work.”

Rather than Gantt charts and project plans, Johnson said organizations should be “trying to work on the most important things in a timely fashion. Do the right things with the right people at the right time.”

In her report, Visitacion suggests organizations adopt Lean to drive their portfolios and Agile to drive their activities. “Lean supports the disciplines necessary to select high-value, high-need investments, while Agile provides the path to optimize how you work,” she wrote.

Johanna Rothman, an Arlington, Mass., consultant and author of Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects, said understanding the value stream of an existing product or ongoing project is key. “If we stop talking about people as resources and start talking teams, we have a better way of managing the portfolio,” she said. “If we flow work through teams, we’re much more likely to be successful; teams get things done in software.”

Rather than managing projects and portfolios at the lowest level, Rothman said organizations need to manage at a higher level by optimizing and prioritizing. “That’s why you have to make one decision: Which project is No. 1? Which is No. 2? Which is 3? If project one is key to success, then you have to leave everyone on that project alone, and the same with two,” she said. “It’s really that simple.”

Another key principle of Lean is getting rid of waste. Johnson recommended eliminating project plans and Gantt charts. “What executives need to see is concrete results.”

Rothman agreed. With a Lean approach, she said, the organization knows that in some time it will see a feature, a deliverable, and make a decision. “We see a demo and we say, should we commit, transform, kill? That’s the issue in a nutshell.”

Getting rid of waste also means stepping back and looking at the portfolio, she said. That consists of products or projects that transform your organization, grow your business and keep the lights on. For an existing application in the portfolio, Rothman said getting rid of waste may mean asking, Is there waste associated with the lack of a new feature? “How many back-office people does it take because we don’t have a way to do this in an automated fashion?”

At the same time, organizations also have to determine when they should stop doing updates or maintenance. “At some point you have to turn off the spigot of new features and say, we can kill projects or products,” she said.

Reducing the overhead of managing portfolios also eliminates waste, Johnson said. “Management has to change around the Lean movement. If writing purchase orders takes six months, it’s not a very good fit.”

For project and portfolio managers just getting started with Lean principles, Rothman said start with small chunks rather than the big picture. And most important, she said, “Keep teams together and have work flow through projects. If that’s the one thing you can do, do that. It will get you the biggest bang for the buck.”

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