Learn from Lean: use Collaborative Design for faster and cheaper projects

When should a project manager plan to use the project budget? Should you keep a lot of budget in reserve for the last part of the project, to fire-fight problems? Intuitively, the answer is YES.

But the answer from Lean is NO. You should invest up-front in Collaborative Design. You will have fewer fires to fight. This article explains why.

Collaborative Design in Lean Manufacturing

Lean Project Management is based on Lean Manufacturing. Lean Manufacturing was pioneered in Japan by Toyota and Honda. Collaborative design was an integral part of the success of Lean Manufacturing.

It’s often hard to transfer concepts from Lean Manufacturing to Lean Project Manufacturing. But in this case it’s easy, because Collaborative Design comes from Lean’s new product introduction: for automobile manufacturers, introducing a new car is a project. Toyota and Honda pioneered Collaborative Design to optimise their project success.

It’s explained in the excellent book The Machine that Changed the World : the Story of Lean Production by James Womack et al.

In the best lean projects, the numbers of people involved are highest at the very outset. All the relevant specialities are present, and the project manager’s job is to force the group to confront all the difficult trade-offs they’ll have to make to agree on the project. As development proceeds, the number of people involved drops…

In many mass production design exercises, the number of people involved is very small at the outset but grows to a peak very close to time of launch… to resolve problems that should have been cleared up in the beginning.

The budget is spent very differently in Lean: it’s spent upfront. Whereas in Mass Production, it’s saved for downstream trouble-shooting.

Let’s draw this as a graph. Let’s compare two projects which have the same budget in man-days (effort). We see that the two graphs of effort against time are very different.

Collaborative design in lean manufacturing

Collaborative Design drives project success. The authors quote some figures:

  • cheaper: a nearly two-to-one reduction in effort
  • faster: a saving of one-third in time

So let’s include that in our graphs. Let’s now visualise the graphs for two similar product launches, i.e. two comparable projects

Collaborative design for faster and cheaper projects

That’s the promise of Collaborative Design: a smaller area under the curve (less effort) and a curve which descends quicker (less time).

Collaborative Design in Project Management

Let’s bring this back from automobiles to project management.

A lot of projects follow the same curve as Mass Production. Planning is largely a solitary activity, mostly done by the project manager. Resources are added down-stream to firefight problems late in the project.

In my book, Lean3 Project Management, I advocate Collaborative Design. In general, the object is to design the project (unlike in Lean Manufacturing where the object is to design a new product). My book argues for collaborative project design. 

Collaborative Design brings together the key stakeholders (such as work package owners, subject matter experts and users) to produce and validate high-level designs called Project Flow diagrams. The project manager then leverages the agreed design to produce the plan and the business case.

Collaborative design in project management

Collaborative Design not only changes the shape of the curve, but it promises to shorten the curve and generate the same payback as in the automobile sector: faster and cheaper projects.

Three key features of Collaborative Design

1. It generates shared understanding

Collaborative Design produces Project Flow diagrams, which are high-level macro-plans. They show the project deliverables as a flow:

  • a flow of work (what is required to deliver the solution)
  • a flow of value (what is needed to ensure a beneficial outcome).

They are a good basis for collaboration – very visual, easy-to-understand. This early shared understanding increases team motivation and stakeholder buy-in.

The team is pro-actively generating early knowledge. This early knowledge will improve the project in many ways: better planning and budgeting; the refinement of needs and specifications; and so on.

2. It allows for early trouble-shooting

Collaborative Design means bringing together a cross-functional team together early

  • before the project plan is finalised
  • before the business case or budget is finalised
  • before project delivery starts

The objective is to get agreement on the flows, to resolve issues, to make trade-offs, to plan for integration of the various deliverables

This means trouble-shooting is done early. It’s done up-stream, before the plan and the budget is set in concrete; and before the early deliverables are done. This avoids expensive redesign, rework and delays down-stream. If you can avoid down-stream firefighting, that’s your payback.

3. It’s cross functional

The team is cross-functional, to focus both on delivery and also on the outcome.

For delivery, the team may include

  • deliverable owners / work package owners
  • subject matter experts (including people involved in regulatory or financial controls)

and from the areas impacted by the outcome

  • users
  • customers / consumers

In the case of external stakeholders, they may be represented by an internal function (e.g. the marketing function represents the customer).

Learn from Lean

So when you are kicking off your next project, don’t just follow your intuition, use Lean Project Management. If you simply follow your intuition, you may end up fighting fires and troubleshooting.

Leverage your budget early… to get a payback later. Use Collaborative Design.

Written by Jeff on March 12, 2021 in blog
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