What is Lean methodology?

Atlassian By Atlassian
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Like NASA mission control specialists, project managers must track numerous aspects to ensure their team delivers projects without incident. But while NASA manages spacecraft, project managers monitor deliverables.

Lean methodologies can help prevent project management disasters akin to the Apollo 13 catastrophe, allowing you to deliver projects on time and within budget. 

Lean methodology facilitates an ongoing process of incremental adjustment, significantly accelerating product delivery by optimizing resources and effort and allowing teams to work efficiently and effectively.

In this article, you will learn more about Lean methodology, its benefits, and how Jira can help your software team implement its principles.

History of Lean methodology

Lean methodology aims to fully optimize your team’s process and output through continuous improvements. When done well, Lean allows teams to deliver customer value efficiently. 

Toyota Founder Kiichiro Toyoda developed the Lean methodology after World War II to conserve resources and eliminate waste. After observing the purchasing and restocking of items at a supermarket, he conceived the just-in-time concept, which focuses on making products exactly when customers need them. 

Toyoda's concept morphed into the Toyota Production System, which eventually became the Lean methodology. From these small beginnings, Lean evolved into the foundation of Agile project management—several industries, including software development, construction, and healthcare, now use Lean methodology.

Overview of Lean methodology

Lean methodology rests on two pillars that provide a framework for all Lean projects: Continuous improvement and respect for people.

  • Continuous improvement: An ongoing feedback loop helps teams make progressive changes to processes, products, and personnel to improve systems continuously. By identifying, evaluating, and modifying existing processes or systems – one cog at a time – teams can eliminate waste and improve efficiency on the whole.
  • Respect: Managers recognize the value of team contributions and customer feedback, and take those insights and ideas seriously. Lean managers distribute work throughout the workflow in the most efficient manner to encourage close collaboration and maximize value to customers. 

The core principles of Lean methodology have been developed with both of these factors.

Principles of Lean methodology

It’s essential to consider the impact your work will have on the customer experience. Lean’s five core principles help teams organize tasks and provide project managers with oversight. These five core principles include:

1. Identify value

To deliver value to your customers, you must first understand their needs. You can do this by:

  • Engaging directly with customers to learn about their pain points.
  • Identifying how your product helps mitigate those pain points.

Next, you need to define your product’s value in meeting customer needs and communicate this with your team. You can do this by framing the team’s work around how it impacts the customer experience and researching the best tools to help your team deliver value to your customers.

Identifying value saves time and money by ensuring your team builds only features that add value for your customers. 

2. Map the value stream

The activities needed to deliver quality customer experiences form part of the value stream. Value stream mapping uses diagrams to help visualize the project process, aiding in value stream management, which is critical to eliminating waste. 

Value stream mapping involves the following activities: 

  • Identify the problem and choose the right team: Identify your customers’ main pain points, and then choose a team with the skills to solve these problems. 
  • Bound and map the process: Limit the project's scope to necessary activities. You can then map the process using the Scrum board template in Jira and set dates for each deliverable. 
  • Collect data: Understand what resources are needed by tracking data such as the hours the team spends working on the project.
  • Assess and adjust: To ensure continuous process improvement, constantly assess processes and ask the question, “Is there a better way to do this?”

3. Create a flow

A flow state is when the team is in a groove and work is moving smoothly, so much so that we don’t notice the passage of time. Creating a flow state increases team engagement and performance. 

Team flow reflects the efficiency of the value stream, which you can continuously fine-tune using the ongoing feedback loop. Lean methodology requires a smooth and continuous flow to reduce delays and minimize handoff times.

“When implementing Lean, focus on flow,” says Atlassian’s Modern Work Coach Mark Cruth. “Flow is at the center of each element of Lean, whether it’s reducing waste, eliminating silos, or continuously improving…all elements come back to flow!”

You can improve your team’s flow by implementing the following: 

  • Cross-functional collaboration: Silos are the kryptonite of Lean. Your team should participate in the entire process and collaborate with other teams, if necessary, to accomplish their tasks. For example, this might involve looping in customer success teams and getting their input on customer pain points. Moreover, your team can deepen their knowledge of how other departments operate.
  • Task tracking: Kanban boards, or the Kanban template in Jira, can help you assign tasks, visualize work, and coordinate your team. These cards help teams track the progress of tasks throughout the project lifecycle . 

4. Establish pull

With a pull system, teams only work on what the customer needs when they need it, producing according to actual customer demand, not forecasted projections. 

To accurately assess customer needs, the team must talk to customers and seek their input.

5. Seek perfection

Lean requires a growth mindset and strives for perfection through continuous improvement, using an ongoing feedback loop to help the project manager, team, and company reduce waste and enhance efficiency. 

Benefits of Lean methodology

As a project manager, you’ve probably encountered a project hiccup or two, such as waiting for stakeholder feedback. If the feedback comes too late, the entire project stalls. Lean methodology has many benefits that alleviate such roadblocks, such as:

  • Increased efficiency: By mapping the value stream, you can center work around customer needs, eliminating unnecessary work on products and services customers do not want. 
  • Fewer issues: Lean mitigates issues, such as lack of communication and unrealistic deadlines, before they become larger problems. In the case of communication, Lean provides tracking and transparency so everyone is clear on tasks, responsibilities, and deadlines. Since the team participates more closely in the process, they can also push back on any unreasonable timelines. 
  • Reduced costs: By creating a clear plan and eliminating roadblocks, you can save money by producing just enough to meet customer demand. That way, you’re not producing more stock than necessary, which is especially important for physical products. 
  • Improved customer relationships: By focusing on customer value, you create stronger customer relationships, which is crucial to a business. 
  • Continuous improvement: Lean’s ongoing feedback loop helps refine and continually improve processes to deliver value efficiently. 
  • Team investment: Because Lean requires more involvement upfront from your team, they’ll be more engaged with the outcome. They’ll have a say on what they’re working on and when they expect to complete it. An empowered team is an engaged one. 

Potential challenges of Lean methodology

Despite its numerous benefits, practicing Lean may present some challenges that project managers should recognize and learn to overcome. These challenges include:

  • Lack of management support: Unsupportive management can destroy any Lean team and become a roadblock. 
    • Fix: Get the team’s buy-in as early as possible and show them how Lean can help.
  • Insufficient training: An ill-trained team can negatively impact their output. If they don’t understand the Lean process, how can you expect them to easily plug into it?  
    • Fix: When onboarding the team, provide adequate training in Lean methodology. You can enroll your team in a Lean certification program that will provide hands-on training. With a certification, you’ll be confident that they have the proper knowledge of Lean methods. 
  • Focus on tools rather than culture: Putting tools before people decreases team engagement. An emphasis on tools in Lean may dehumanize and devalue your team and their work. When a team doesn’t feel valued, they’re less likely to give their best.  

    • Fix: Build a culture of trust using Lean's philosophy of continuous improvement. Providing continuous feedback and opportunities for growth shows that you, as a manager, are interested in your team’s career development.

  • Insufficient focus on metrics: Metrics are key to team improvement in Lean methodology.  
    • Fix: Pay attention to the metrics to measure project success and look for improvement areas to develop your team.

Use Jira for project management

Lean accelerates your project management and keeps team agile by eliminating waste and continually streamlining processes. 

Jira can help software teams stay lean and deliver more customer value. Contextual insights empower teams to build and train muscles to continuously learn and improve their way of working. Scrum and Kanban boards give your team full visibility into what’s next so you can continuously deliver maximum output in minimal time. With Jira as the backbone of collaboration, all teams can stay in lockstep with each other and the rest of the organization.

Jira also enables enterprises to visualize value streams. With this, your enterprise can:  

  • Set up process flow automation. Give your teams time back and reduce manual work with Jira’s powerful automation engine.Align work with business needs. See how day-to-day work ladders up to the strategic objectives and keeps important stakeholders informed with ready-made agile reports. 
  • Track investments. Understand what resources are being used and the time invested in any project so you can allocate efforts appropriate for the next. 
  • Uncover roadblocks. Identify potential roadblocks and prevent them before they happen. 
  • Deliver continuous value. With more clarity and insight, your team will be able to consistently deliver value to customers and the company as a whole.

This solution also works well for other methods such as Agile, Open DevOps, and value stream management. 

Lean methodology: frequently asked questions

What is the difference between Agile and Lean?

At first glance, it seems challenging to distinguish between Lean methodology vs. Agile. While both focus on efficiency and customer value, they emphasize different aspects of project management. Lean focuses on waste elimination, process, and delivering value, whereas Agile focuses on customers, mitigating uncertainty, and delivering working software.

Let’s break that down: 

  • Focus: As a top-down approach, Lean is concerned with process improvements. However, Agile is a bottom-up approach where work is broken down into smaller iteration loops. 
  • Product delivery: Both Lean and Agile teams work fast to deliver products as soon as possible. However, Agile is less concerned with speed than it is with feedback. So Agile teams build smaller, get feedback, and iterate. Lean is focused on improving the overall process to deliver faster.  
  • Frameworks: Lean doesn't have specific frameworks, whereas Agile does. Scrum and Kanban are two Agile project management frameworks that allow you to apply Agile principles. Jira offers a Scrum template and a Kanban template to help project managers get started with the Agile methodology.

What is the difference between DevOps and Lean?

DevOps creates functional collaboration between development and operational teams, allowing for faster software delivery. This is the core philosophy of DevOps: Continually deliver value to the business through a culture of understanding and collaboration.  

In contrast, Lean’s core philosophy is to deliver value through process improvements and waste elimination. 

Lean and DevOps are customer-centric methodologies, but they differ in two main areas:

  • Customer value: DevOps creates customer empathy image maps, framing business goals into customer value. Lean chooses customer value activities based on need. 
  • Focus: DevOps integrates development and operations with documentation and collaboration. Lean optimizes processes, resources, and effort. 

In addition, DevOps automates mundane tasks, such as pull requests—which the DevOps beginner's guide delves more deeply into. 

If you already use DevOps, Open DevOps—an out-of-the-box DevOps foundation powered by Jira with an open-tool approach and automation—can help your Agile team focus on shipping and operating quality software and ensure the "you build it, you run it" practice associated with DevOps principles.

Can you use Agile, Lean, and DevOps at the same time?

Yes! These methodologies complement each other in their aim to deliver quality and value to customers. DevOps breaks down silos to integrate the development and operations teams. Agile encourages continuous improvement. Lean puts continuous improvement ideals into practice. 

Using all three can speed up product delivery and customer value. For example, your company might be using all three but not in concert. Lean can help improve your Agile process. And Agile’s iterative approach can help with Lean’s continuous improvement. With DevOps, you can improve your cross-collaboration. 

Using all three, your company would become a powerhouse, delivering customer value through more efficient practices. 

You can connect these methodologies using Atlassian’s suite of project management tools.