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by Derrell S. James

What exactly is a project manager? In a nutshell, a project manager (PM) is a person who plans, solves and executes a solution--in other words, a problem solver. Traditionally, projects had a beginning and an end, and required a timeline, a few resources, some money--and off they went.

Those days are over. In many cases, projects today are assigned (usually as just an idea) to a senior leader, who's told to "make it happen" by a certain date and to use existing resources and budgets. If the PM is lucky, there might be a specific set of deliverables, some discretionary budget and a reasonable time frame. Sometimes companies engage a professional project manager only during times of crisis or when senior leaders realize that they're in over their heads.

A survey in most corporations would reveal wildly varying sentiments about PMs. Ask the rank and file today to define "project manager," and they might say a PM is arrogant, overly sure of his or her knowledge and a bit of an old fogy. Some might use the word "curmudgeon." A couple might even go so far as to say, "If it weren't for those pushy so-and-so's, I might be able to get some work done around here!"

The other end of the spectrum consists of PMs who believe that their work can be so valuable that customers are won and lost solely by their decisions.

In the middle is the real PM, an overworked and underappreciated resource who's likely a victim of his or her own success. PMs have experience in multiple departments and usually have strong financial management, organizational and customer-service skills. Many times they're engineers who wish to gain some customer-facing experience. They come from all walks of life, from all departments, and they're all charged with the task of solving serious problems. They're often swept up in emotional conflicts over funding, resources and turf.

Can a PM turn to lean and Six Sigma for help? Absolutely. Combining lean and/or Six Sigma thinking and tools with traditional project management techniques can be a powerful combination. Let's call this ideally equipped project manager the "lean PM." And to paraphrase a famous 1970s television show: "We can rebuild him; we have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better… stronger… faster."

About four years ago, a leading avionics and communications company undertook a major project--to reinvent its core processes in manufacturing, supply chain and distribution. With a strong history in lean philosophy, the team chose to use lean tools to conduct the change. However, several Six Sigma tools were included that ensured not only an improvement in velocity, but also the reduction of defects and variation. The project took six months to complete and approximately one year to integrate all of the changes--quite an investment in key resources. Critical to the success of the project was a team
of very strong PMs who led the effort.

Before proceeding with this case study, let's get back to the basics.

All projects have five phases: initiation and definition, planning, execution, managing results, and closure or renewal. The effectiveness of each phase relies heavily on communication and collaboration. Successful lean PMs should be able to adjust their approach to meet the requirements of each stage of the project. Understanding and sharing the concept of value (how the customer defines it and what he or she is willing to pay for) should set the tone for the project. Lean prescribes many tools for eliminating waste. Six Sigma prescribes tools that reduce variation. The lean PM can select from a lengthy list of appropriate tools during specific phases of the project. Some examples are listed in the figure above.

Our subject company immediately set forth a charter and organized a cross-functional team with a mix of people from senior leadership, internal consultants, the shop floor, purchasing, program management, engineering, marketing and sales, and distribution. Before planning any activities, the team defined the problem, performed multiple iterations of cause-and-effect analyses and used Pareto charts to establish which problem areas should be attacked first. For the biggest areas, root cause analyses were performed to understand the scope and various mechanisms driving inefficiencies.

Two months were spent on a detailed value-stream mapping that analyzed the core process and the adjacent processes that either relied upon the core or provided inputs to it. Throughout the value-stream mapping, multiple iterations of deep analysis were conducted to ensure all elements of waste were identified and targeted for elimination. Various sub-teams discussed potential failure mode analysis (for both quality and engineering), inhibitors to flow, lack of pull based
on customer requirements and other far-reaching inefficiencies.

Of the project's six-month duration, the first four were spent in definition, planning and mapping. The team's patience and persistence was commendable. Imagine having an energetic team of "doers" in the room itching to get the job done but forcing themselves to slow down and follow the rigor of the process. It takes a mature team to do this.

The last two months of the process were committed to execution. The team was really in its element at that point. The analyses provided for more specific courses of action. Standard work, flow and pull systems were established, and a balanced scorecard was created to manage the results. The key phrase here is "manage the results." Most people use metrics and scorecards to monitor the results of an activity. Our subject company used metrics not only as trailing indicators (i.e., the monitoring aspect), but also as leading indicators of future trends and actions in anticipation of future problems. This is a Six Sigma way of thinking.

A word of caution: Better does not equal more. In all cases, the lean PM should select tools that give the best result while using the simplest approach. For example, if a simple use of the "five whys" gets to the root of the problem, there might not be a need to use a more detailed fault analysis. However, a lean PM must follow the five steps noted on the figure above to conduct a complete and thorough project. Skipping past the planning phase will inevitably lead to poor results.

Whereas there are no specific lean or Six Sigma tools that eliminate emotional attachments in project management, recognizing the social aspect of change is paramount to a project's success. Passion might be the least understood, most powerful and most common cause of failure in project management. Being able to harness, mold and adjust the passion for achieving is a hard-earned skill of the lean PM. But embodying the definition of value will differentiate the lean PM from the stereotypical PM discussed at the beginning of this article.

Lean PMs must have the conviction to meet commitments imposed on them by management. It's important to recognize that there are always additional requirements and future considerations to developing value-added products and services. Given this, the lean PM must be forever tied to the corporate mission, vision and objectives. Maintaining a vision of the bigger picture makes it easier to demonstrate the case for change. The workforce will resist change unless there's a clear understanding of why it should occur.

Although the list of lean and Six Sigma tools noted previously helps in executing the technical side of project management, a lean PM must have an arsenal of "social" tools as well. Some examples are listed in the figure above.

Our subject company understood the power of the social side and that without it, the project's effectiveness would be much less than anticipated. The team created a tool called "social-stream mapping," characterized by interviewing, brainstorming and communications at all levels of the organization. Everyone understood the case for change and the goals, metrics and the cadence necessary for managing that change.

A number of techniques and questions can help lean PMs analyze an organization's current social state. They can set up a simple spreadsheet or table that captures the factors that enhance or hinder the pursuit of value for the specific project. Some of the questions to consider are:

In what ways does the manner in which work is organized, or the behaviors of people within the value stream, help or hinder flow? This question will measure the relationships between departments, teams or individuals that the lean PM might affect. It will also provide insights into the difficulties a lean PM might experience in making changes.

How does the way in which information is obtained for decision making help or hinder the ability to produce output? This question will measure the ability to get accurate information in a timely fashion. It will also gauge how freely departments, teams or individuals communicate.

How does the way decisions are made affect output? This question will measure whether decision making is autonomous or closely guarded. It will also measure whether decision making is localized or delegated, and how final decisions are made.

In what ways do the company, department and team goals help or hinder output? This question will measure how goals are used and valued by the workforce, and the degree of motivation and passion the goals elicit.

To what extent are rewards and recognition used? Do they reinforce desired behaviors? Is there a positive affect on the performance? These questions will demonstrate the level of morale in the workforce, and the freedom lean PMs might be given to encourage and motivate teammates.

In what ways do leadership and policies help or hinder work? This analysis will expose potential personality conflicts, or conflicts in policy that hinder the project's success.


A strong lean PM will recognize that organizational culture consists of shared assumptions, attitudes and practices. The common experiences of people regarding "what it's like to work here" and "what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior" will either hinder or enhance a project's success. Depending on the scope, complexity and duration of the project, a focus on the social aspects of project management will ensure success for
the lean PM.

The technical lean tools noted earlier excel in creating velocity. Under "execute" and "manage results" are myriad tools at the lean PM's disposal. Our subject company used tools such as 5S to establish consistent workforce organization and improve productivity per square foot of space. They used standard work to ensure consistency of the most optimal methods and communicated these to its manufacturing divisions throughout North America. By reducing inhibitors to just-in-time manufacturing, they reduced inventories, total cycle time and internal costs.

However, the quality of that velocity is forever tied with reducing variation--thus the innate and required linkage with Six Sigma tools. Think of it as a drag racer with a major front-end alignment problem. The car might have huge horsepower capable of covering a quarter-mile in just seconds, but if the front end continually pulls the car to the right, the driver will never succeed in reaching the finish line, and the "project" will likely crash.

A lean PM must face a constant drag on time, resources and materials. These variations cause process corrections, errors and delays in achieving milestones. This churning soup of requirements induces stress and slows the natural pace at which humans can perform work. Someone once said, "Delay is preferable to error." In today's world, this person would be out of a job. This mantra must be replaced by "No delay, no error." The value of lean and Six Sigma tools are clear, and the transformational path traveled by the lean PM requires them.

So does all of this actually work? Are you skeptical that real results occur? Let's examine our subject company. The changes in the company's five core processes led to what might be the most important metric of all--creating shareholder value. During the four years since the company completed the redesign of all of its core processes (the project discussed in this article being the last of five processes to be re-invented), the company stock increased by 400 percent, with record cash flow, strong sales and record profits in an incredibly complex and varying government, military and commercial marketplace.

Can all this be attributed to the project managers? No. However, due to their strong leadership as well as the commitment of senior leadership and the team members, and the application of lean and Six Sigma tools, the result was assuredly superior--and aren't results what drive any good project manager?

About the author
Derrell S. James is vice president of operations for Genico Inc. (GENICON). He has 16 years of experience in operations general management and business development in high-technology manufacturing and service industries. James is a frequent speaker and writer on leadership, lean and continuous improvement, and operational effectiveness, and has led transformations in the automotive, aerospace, process control and medical-devices industries. GENICON is a global supplier of state-of-the art laparoscopic instrumentation. For more information, visit www.geniconendo.com.