Lean process improvement: What is it and how to apply it to projects

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Continuous improvement is a fundamental principle of Lean methodology, and Lean process improvement focuses on eliminating wasteful activities to streamline a company’s processes. It involves analyzing and assessing projects while they are underway and after completion to identify opportunities for improvement. This method seeks to create a systematic approach to allow teams to deliver more customer value via the continuous improvement cycle. 

This article breaks down the Lean process improvement methodology and compares it with other software development methodologies, such as Agile and DevOps principles.

What is Lean process improvement?

Lean process improvement focuses on eliminating waste from processes so that the team only works on tasks that create customer value. It’s a cycle of continuous improvement that ensures a team stays Lean.

This isn’t a one-and-done approach. Doing this practice correctly will help sustain momentum and keep projects moving forward. The key objective is to create a systematic means of delivering customer value faster. It’s a long-term practice that works best if the entire company adopts it. 

Benefits of Lean process improvement

Lean process improvement ensures teams are only working on tasks that will deliver value to customers, saving the company resources and money.

Lean process improvement has the following benefits: 

  • Increased efficiency: Analyzing and improving your process allows you to better estimate future sprints’ deadlines and deliverables. 
  • Better collaboration: Continual improvement fosters cross-collaboration company-wide. It encourages teams to communicate issues or opportunities for process improvement. 
  • Improved morale: Streamlined and stable processes create more wins for a team, improving morale. 
  • Decreased waste: Teams only work on essential tasks, decreasing time wastage.
  • Growth mindset: Lean management encourages everyone to continually seek improvement. 
  • Satisfied customers: If a company consistently delivers value, customers become advocates for its products. 
  • Ability to remain relevant: The ability to shift priorities and adapt prevents stagnation.

How to apply Lean process improvement within projects

Using Lean principles to improve processes is a process in itself. Here’s how to integrate it within a company in four easy steps:

1. Determine potential areas for improvement

Gather your team and take an honest look at your current processes. Identify areas where the processes are not meeting your team’s needs and could benefit from change. 

For instance, you might have an ongoing blocker each time you move from design to development. Investigate what is causing that blocker. Is it miscommunication? Are there skill gaps? Does the design team need more support? 

Consider visualizing your workflow with a Kanban board. A root cause analysis template can also guide you through this process. 

2. Identify potential solutions

Once you pinpoint improvement areas, involve the team in finding potential solutions. Their experience often allows them to generate effective solutions. Challenge traditional ways of doing things and seek to break the “how we’ve always done it” mindset. 

From these potential solutions, determine which ones are most feasible. Then, choose a focus area and develop an action plan to implement the ideas. 

3. Implement improvements

Implementing change can be challenging. There may be initial resistance. However, proper planning and project collaboration make this process easier and help teams work together.

Using a project plan template ensures cross-functional collaboration because it outlines the plan of attack and helps determine the best way to implement solutions. You can map out the project’s logistics beforehand so everything is crystal clear. Having a plan also ensures the involvement and collaboration of stakeholders, as they’ll be able to track and monitor progress.

4. Monitor outcomes

Implementing solutions is not the end of the process. It is crucial to monitor performance and gather data to determine if the solutions resulted in improvements. It is also essential to identify the reasons behind the success or failure of the solutions. 

Analyzing this data can reveal areas that require further refinement. This is normal, as the process is cyclical; the goal is to continue to improve and refine the solutions.

Now that we’ve looked at how to implement this methodology, let’s see how it compares with other methods.

Lean process improvement vs. value stream management

Value stream management (VSM) is another Lean methodology focused on improvement. It aims to improve how teams deliver high-quality customer experiences by focusing on the speed at which customers receive updates and whether they value the changes.

VSM examines a company’s overall product development and delivery system. It seeks to enhance the end-to-end process of delivering the product, service, or experience. Lean process management, however, is task-oriented and focuses on specific processes.

Teams can rely on Jira to streamline workflows and processes and scale their team collaboration. Jira Align helps companies visualize value streams across teams, set up process flow automation, and align work with business needs.

Lean process improvement vs. Agile

Agile project management, another Lean methodology, is an iterative process for software development with continuous releases based on customer feedback.

Agile has four key values and 12 guiding principles, which put people over processes and tools. They strive to improve communication within teams and between customers.   

Like VSM, Agile project management aims for overall process improvement. It achieves this through ongoing communication between end-users and the development team.

Scrum and Kanban are two Agile frameworks. Scrum is designed for teams that deliver work on a regular cadence or work in short, time boxed periods called sprints. Kanban, however, is designed for teams that limit work-in-progress and focus on a continuous flow of work. Jira supports both agile methodologies, making it easier for software teams to organize work, stay aligned, and build better products.

Lean process improvement vs. DevOps

DevOps refers to a cross-functional team of operations and developers who communicate, share feedback, and collaborate throughout the development process. DevOps principles focus on increasing the speed of software development through cross-functional collaboration. It breaks the walls between the development team and the operations team. DevOps uses a customer-centric method to make process improvements using feedback loops with end-users. Lean process management relies on the internal team rather than the customer.  

Open DevOps, powered by Jira, can help software teams implement this methodology and keep them focused on delivering value to customers. It integrates easily with Atlassian and partner tools so teams can focus on building and operating software.

Can you apply all of these principles at once?

Yes, these four Lean methodologies build upon each other, allowing a company to improve its processes and productivity. Lean process improvement can refine internal processes and eliminate wasteful activities. VSM can hone the customer value stream, delivering better quality products. Agile keeps teams nimble and responsive to change. And DevOps increases team empathy for customers. 

The outcomes of these methodologies result in improved customer experience and satisfaction

Jira for Lean process improvement

Jira simplifies the complexities of software development, supports teams at every stage of the delivery lifecycle, and enables teams to stay lean. 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 can also help large organizations visualize value streams across teams. You can further automate your process flows and ensure work aligns with strategic business objectives. All of this will help you stay lean as you track investments, streamline operations, and uncover roadblocks. That way, your team will deliver continuous value to customers.

Lean process improvement: Frequently asked questions

What are the 5 Lean principles?

The five Lean principles are the cornerstone of the Lean process. They originated in Japan’s automotive industry and are used in various industries. Let’s break them down: 

  1. Define value: Determine which activities provide customer value. 
  2. Map the value stream: Visualize customer value activities to keep projects on task. 
  3. Create flow: Remove any roadblocks before they interrupt the team’s flow. 
  4. Establish a pull system: Produce according to actual demand rather than forecasted demand. 
  5. Seek continuous improvement: Look for opportunities to improve processes and find efficiencies.

What are the most common Lean process improvement techniques?

Here are a few common techniques to improve processes using Lean principles: 

  • Kanban: This technique uses cards to organize and visualize team activities. It allows the entire team to see what’s moved from “to-do” to “done.”  
  • 5 Whys: Asking why five times helps identify the root cause of a problem. It allows you to constantly drill down on an issue until you get to its initial cause.  
  • WIP Limits: In this technique, the project manager sets the limit of work that can exist in any given workflow. Having WIP limits prevents the team from getting overloaded and stressed.

What are the most important things to keep in mind when using a Lean process improvement approach?

To achieve continuous improvement, a team must strive to reduce and eliminate waste as an ongoing practice. It’s not a one-and-done approach; it’s a cyclical process of improvement. Best practices also recommend focusing on a singular process issue at a time rather than tackling them all at once. It’s easier to solve one issue at a time than to spread out your efforts and try to address all the problems at the same time.