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Eric Graves

Aerospace and mechanical engineer turned NPD systems engineer, Eric spends his time engineering better product develop systems, using Playbook as his tool of choice!

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5 Principles of Lean Project Management

Eric Graves- 03/8/18 12:00 PM

I recently read the new book Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal. I’d like to share some of my favorite excerpts from his book, and share the 5 new rules of engagement for Lean project management.

5 Principles of Lean Project Management

In summary here are the 5 principles of Lean project management.

  1. Decentralize project management
  2. Make work visible and transfer information quickly
  3. Build trust and shared consciousness
  4. A combination of the above yields surprising results
  5. Decentralized control start with effective nurturing and leadership

In order to keep this brief, I’ll omit the definition of “complex” and the conditions that make many, but certainly not all, product development projects complex. Let’s just take it as a given that most projects today are complex enough for these lessons to apply.

You can read out complete guide to Lean Project Management here.

In the excerpts below, I’ve replaced references to "the enemy," "Al Qaeda in Iraq," "AQI," or specific individuals, with "our competition." I’ve also paraphrased in a few places for fluidity.

We pick up the story in the middle of the book, when General McChrystal has realized the old, traditional rules of engagement just weren’t cutting it.

1. Decentralize Project Management

“By this point I knew that defeating [our competition] could not be accomplished by a traditional command – even a command composed of teams as capable as our own. We would have to match [their] adaptability while preserving our traditional strengths, and this would necessitate an unprecedented transformation… Accomplishing this would involve a complete reversal of the conventional approach to information sharing, delineation of roles, decision-making authority, and leadership.”

For many teams today, having team members make their work visible and keep it current feels like an "unprecedented transformation" and "a complete reversal of the conventional approach," just as it did to Gen. McChrystal.

Transformations like these can’t occur overnight, but are critical for truly lean and agile (rapidly responding) teams that continuously deliver highly innovative, profitable, high quality new products that satisfy customers’ ever-changing needs. However, with careful nurturing, transformation can develop over time in a natural, sustainable manner.

2. Make work visible and transfer information quickly

In this excerpt, McCrystal describes how, in the 1960’s, NASA transformed from an organization which was losing the space race to the Soviets, into one that beat them to the moon. The transformation was led by George Mueller.

“Mueller insisted on quick data exchange. All data were on display in a central control room that had linked displays in field centers. Information was updated and shared widely and instantly. As the utility of this information became evident, more and more engineers who were initially opposed, started to come around.

What Mueller instituted was known as ‘systems engineering’ or ‘systems management.’ This approach believes that one cannot understand a part of the system without at least a rudimentary understanding of the whole. Establishing that understanding took time away from other duties and was, in some ways, ‘inefficient,’ but in two years, Apollo transformed from a group of loosely organized research teams into a tightly run development organization. Even the engineers most ardently opposed to systems management found that many technical problems could be solved by only sharing information.”

In order for teams to assess a situation and respond, the situation must be visible and current (up-to-date). Responding well means working on what the priorities really should be and removing whatever is impeding progress today.

If weekly status meetings are too infrequent, this practice will delay the transfer of information, and result in longer timelines.

Consider trying to drive a car and only opening your eyes every 5 seconds instead of every second or keeping them open all the time. You can easily fail to respond to a turn in the road fast enough to avoid a major issue.

When team members see that putting in a little bit of extra time really keeps them on track, they see the value.

3. Build trust and shared consciousness

“But fostering such engagement is more easily said than done. Almost every company has posters and slogans urging employees to “work together,” but simply telling people to “communicate” is the equivalent of telling workers to “do things faster” and stopping there. It is necessary, we found, to dismantle the old system and replace it with a new managerial architecture. Our new architecture was shared consciousness, and it consisted of two elements. The first was transparency. The second was the creation of strong interconnectivity across teams that mirrored the trust that enabled our teams to function.”

Building trust isn’t a Playbook method, but is definitely a core component of effective decentralized control. The importance of trust between individual team members and between managers and team members should not be underestimated.

For decentralization to work, there must be trust that team will make good decisions. The channels that provide them the right information to do so must also exist. The information must be accurate, and the culture must empower people to act on the information. In addition, there must be clear guidelines (shared consciousness) to ensure team members are acting in the ways management agrees are best.

In product development transparency includes capturing emerging project risks as well as plans to address them in one central repository and in a format others can quickly understand. It’s important to do this in real time because the team becomes aware of new risks throughout the project, not just at the beginning. Responding quickly is necessary to respond effectively.

The guidelines necessary to act on the information also must be understood by the entire team. For example, when it is better to slow down to reduce the cost of the product or implement an improvement or when it is better to go faster and spend a little more or skip the improvement? Developing a plan, even though we know it will change, can be a great way to establish shared consciousness and guidelines.

4. Putting it all together yields surprising results

We had decentralized on the belief that the 70 percent solution today would be better than the 90 percent solution tomorrow. But we found our estimates were backward – we were getting the 90 percent solution today instead of the 70 percent solution tomorrow… Understanding the underlying causes of the unexpected outcome proved essential to sustaining and enhancing it.

A piece of this is the psychology of decision making. An individual who makes a decision becomes more invested in its outcome. Another factor was that, for all our technology, our leadership simply did not understand what was happening on the ground as thoroughly as the people who were there. But the key reason for the success of empowered execution lay in what had come before it: the foundation of shared consciousness.

It was counterintuitive, but it reflected exactly the approach on decision making that we needed…’Eyes On – Hands Off’.”

The transparency Playbook establishes is NOT for the purposes of micro-managing, although initially, that is what people may feel. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It is what the team needs to manage themselves, and for the managers to know enough to be able to keep their hands off. The result is a much better, faster response through the many and ever-changing paths of an innovative product development project.

5. Decentralized control starts with effective and nurturing leadership

“I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess. The move-by-move control that seemed natural proved less effective than nurturing the organization – its structure, processes, and culture – to enable the subordinate components to function with “smart autonomy”. It wasn’t total autonomy, because the efforts of every part of the team were tightly linked to a common concept, but it allowed those forces to be enabled with a constant flow of ‘shared consciousness’ and it freed them to execute actions in pursuit of the overall strategy as best they saw fit. As in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on its constant maintenance. A gardener cannot “grow” tomatoes - she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”

To be ‘agile/lean’ requires the right structure, processes, and culture. This can’t be completed in a day or even a month, no matter how much we’d like it to be, but it can absolutely be done. The sooner you start, the sooner your garden will bear good fruit and veggies. You don’t have to do it alone, but you do have to do it, or you will starve.

There are several other excerpts I’d like to share, but you get the point. Decentralized control (empowered execution as McCrystal puts it) with shared consciousness enables quick and effective delivery of solutions in complex environments.

I highly recommend reading the book yourself and gleaning from it whatever will help you and your organization thrive in the complex world we find ourselves in today. I hope you like it.

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