Lean Project Management Structures

Companies mandating complex project management standards should not be surprised when they are not embraced by their project managers. A better approach is to mandate only the minimum project management structures required to do the job, and encourage projects to develop their own project-specific standards.

Project management has both social and structured components (link). The structured component provides the framework necessary to define and coordinate the multitude of tasks, personnel, deadlines, costs, etc. that comprise the project. The social component is required to create a project environment that fosters teamwork and promotes collaboration between the team members. This article will discuss the structured component, namely project management standards (PM standards). We’re assuming your project managers (PMs) have the managerial and leadership skills required for the social component.

In the construction industry many companies have mandated the adoption of PM standards for all company projects. This is generally done top-down, initiated by upper management, with the goal of improving company reporting and project tracking. The actual standards that are adopted are often based on general PM standards, such as PMI or PRINCE2. Having their roots in the manufacturing and aerospace (PMI) and the software and communication (PRINCE2) industries, they are now well-established in many other industries. They are also complex, often requiring courses, accreditations and years of practice to use effectively. Experienced PMs in the construction industry, who have worked their way up through the ranks, often have little formal training in PM standards. This leads to PMs relying on specialists for company reporting and project tracking, but using their own tried and true project management methods.

Suitability Issues

Unfortunately, when selecting and defining corporate PM standards, there is limited input from the construction industry itself or from experienced PMs in the industry. This a serious omission. Construction management has well-defined structures (e.g. scope, organisation chart, work breakdown, work schedule, cost budgets, works contracts) familiar to all construction professionals. These structures often become overly complex in the corporate PM standards, making them ill-suited to the practical issues of project management that they are intended to solve. PM standards are rarely adapted to fit other existing processes, particularly quality management (QM) and document management (DMS) systems. The PM standards are usually drafted as flow charts with long explanatory texts. They are difficult to explain, and difficult to implement in the software tools used for project management.

Complexity Issues

The complexity of PM standards means that they must typically be re-configured for each new project, joint venture and client. This requires (re-)defining and documenting all the PM processes. This is a difficult and time consuming task and it causes real inefficiencies on projects. Project startup becomes particularly difficult, as does management of smaller and shorter projects (e.g. feasibility studies).

Stated bluntly, company PM standards are just too complex and unwieldy, because they don’t match the way projects actually work. PMs and their project teams tend to see them as a theoretical exercise with little applicability to their daily lives. The result is that the official PM standards are not followed, apart from minimal reporting up the chain of command. Worse is that extra effort is required of PMs to set up usable and accepted PM processes, required to actually manage their projects.

Upper levels management are generally unaware of the extent to which this is happening, and that the PMs who are ‘breaking the rules’ are actually trying their best to do a good job.

What Can be Done?

First, PM (and QM) structures should be simplified and reduced to the minimum required to do the job. Allow smaller and early stage projects to use only the minimal versions. This allows project startup to proceed quickly and efficiently, when teams and budgets are small. As projects increase in complexity and duration, you can extend the minimum structures and add additional structures that are required to support additional job-specific PM and QM processes.

Second, ensure that the company PM standards are aligned with how your PMs actually manage projects. This includes setting up an integrated set of tools (mainly software systems, e.g. for document and task management) that support PM standards.

The simplification is critical. You cannot expect experienced PMs to have to take courses to learn new PM standards. If the corporate PM standards require more than an hour to explain to an experienced PM, then they are too complicated. Understanding and acceptance by PMs and their teams is critical to adoption.

Minimum Viable Project Management Structures

What we’re proposing is the definition of minimum viable project management structures. This is the minimum set of structures that must be present to successfully manage a construction project.

We believe it’s possible to define minimum viable structures that work, to implement these in convenient software tools, and that they will work better than the complex PM standards mandated by many companies.

Stay Tuned

As many readers will have guessed, our efforts are directed at adapting lean management and lean startup principles to project management in the construction industry.

Future articles will explore this topic in more detail. We will present concrete suggestions for a set of structures and tools that would be appropriate for minimum viable project management structures. We will discuss lean (also known as agile) planning methods, which can be used for feasibility studies and for basic engineering where requirements definition is part of the project scope.

If you are interested in learning more about where we are heading, we suggest reading the following article: Beyond Document Management.

We welcome your input, your comments, suggestions and questions.

To be continued.