Proof That Lean Project Management Really Works

lean project management

Before I share the lean project management lessons I’ve learned at my organization, I want to share with you how a much smaller team of musicians by the name of Led Zeppelin used lean project management to become one of the greatest rock and roll success stories of all time.

In a recent interview, lead guitarist Jimmy Page humbly said that it would have been impossible to be a band member of Led Zeppelin during the group’s early years and not feel utterly energized each and every day. He once stayed awake for three days straight while on tour in New York City. Why the excitement? Why all the energy?

The simple answer–Led Zeppelin’s songs were changing the landscape of rock and roll, and they felt it. They didn’t know precisely how rock and roll would develop over the next 45 years, but they knew they were going to be a part of its evolution. They knew they were headed in the right direction, not the wrong one. Lead singer Robert Plant has suggested that the band’s path was impromptu and accidental, but I don’t fully believe that. That’s the rock and roll answer.

How’d they do it? Page describes enduring a lot of trial and error in the group’s beginning. When you try new things, what you’re really doing is experimenting, and experiments either result in success or failure. Whether Page realized this or not, his process of producing music was very scientific. I argue that Led Zeppelin scientifically achieved their musical objectives by:

  1. Working as a team to conduct their experiments
  2. Having a strong target vision for their music
  3. Learning, a lot. Embracing the sounds they liked, moving away from the sounds they didn’t
  4. Planning, a lot. Continuously taking pause to think about what works, what doesn’t, and what’s next. Always planning for the next thing (song, album, tour, you name it).

Just as the sky is blue, all bands fail at some point in their existence. I contend that many of Led Zeppelin’s failures occurred upstream in their music making process before the general public heard the end product.  These weren’t bad failures; they helped the band groom their sound early and often. They spent time formulating their vision up front and then testing out different ways to achieve that vision. In fact, Led Zeppelin wanted to protect their creative process and vision so much that they paid for and produced an album on their own before signing with a record label. In the 1960s, bands didn’t typically do this due to the time and cost involved. It turned out to be a major bargaining chip for them. Band members pointed to the songs on the pilot record as a representation of the types of songs they would agree to produce. They went slowly, in the beginning of the band’s formation, to move fast later.

Once they had dialed in their sound, they focused on continuously improving their music and determining innovative ways to deliver it to their customers.

No matter what you do, there will always be haters.

Did everyone see Led Zeppelin as a game-changing band from the get-go? No. A writer from Rolling Stone in March 1969 wrote the infamous review of the Led Zeppelin I album that described Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs.” Ouch. The reality is that there will always be haters because sometimes the better way of doing things seems awkward, frustrating, unnatural, and just plain different at first. Humorously, after just nine months, the same writer’s review of Led Zeppelin’s second album changed dramatically. The December 1969 review begins with “Hey, man, I take it all back!”

The music was one thing; band management was another.

Peter Grant, dubbed music’s most feared manager, is remembered for having a short fuse. More like a bouncer than a manager, he literally assaulted folks for trying to profit off the band. He aggressively protected his band’s financial interests as well as their creative process. The music always came first for Peter. He believed in the band and their music.

At a time when musicians were not compensated fairly and many of them puppets for the record labels, he commanded higher profit margins for the workers. His tactics systematically changed the music business. He didn’t interact with promoters and labels the same way as other band managers of his time. He changed the working model. He changed the process.

How was he able to do this? The fans. The customers. There was a remarkably high demand for Led Zeppelin music. Fans wanted his product. Fans saw unprecedented value in Led Zeppelin concerts. He leveraged this demand.

Grant was able to transform the idea of a music concert into an experience; an experience not to be missed. The experience that fans encountered at a Led Zeppelin concert was his hen that lay golden eggs. Album and poster sales played second fiddle to delivering an amazing experience to fans. He created value that had never been experienced before. Three-hour concerts with no breaks were NOT the norm at the time. The Beatles couldn’t believe what Led Zeppelin was doing in their live performances. The paying customers placed their stamp of approval on the tactics; the fans loved it.

So there’s an iconic band with amazeballs music and a proven creative process and a hot-headed music manager with unscrupulous yet brilliant marketing and profit protection techniques. Where am I going with this?

I’m glad you asked. Let’s move this conversation from music management to project management:

As a project manager, I feel energized thinking about the project process improvements my organization has put into place over the past year. I’ve got a strong gut instinct and my organization’s recent strategy to executing projects feels better than any approach I’ve used in my 17-year career.

Listening to the Led Zeppelin album of lean project management won’t do a thing for you without practical application. By putting the key themes of the album to work, we’ve produced some phenomenal results in less than a year. In fact, it’s a notable project management success story without the booze, drugs, and marital problems.

Wait – before I introduce the album, I’d like to introduce the father of modern quality control, Dr. W. Edwards Deming. His teaching was to Lean thinking what Lead Belly was to blues music for Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin didn’t just throw down ridiculously impressive songs without learning from mentors; Lead Belly was one of their chief Blues coaches. Deming and his PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) model is used by lean managers worldwide as a guide to making small incremental continuous improvements. My organization fully embraces Deming’s PDSA model. We train each person when she walks into the door as a new employee.

Armed with the PDSA foundations, let me introduce the Led Zeppelin album of lean project management to you. It’s currently in the making and continuously improving.

Best Rock Venue Ever

Red Rocks – Best Rock Venue Ever

Album Summary:

  • Theme: Small, time-boxed projects that deliver value incrementally.

Track List:

Track I: Whole Lotta Benefits

  • Creates a culture of excellence
    • Only the projects that add the most value survive
    • Said another way, you’re always working on the right thing at the right time
  • Four-month project cycles
    • Gone are the days of year-long money sucker projects
    • This reduces the risk of total project disaster because every four months you get to kill the initiatives that aren’t successful
    • This improves your project completion rate (+/- 90%, not too shabby)
    • This allows your organization to continuously deliver smaller chunks of usable value (as opposed to delivering exactly squat after four months)
  • Substantial executive involvement (keeps wild executives from going rogue)
    • Here’s the process to keep them involved
      • It’s easy. Just change the way they think 🙂
      • First, get them involved in the prioritization of problems
      • That’s right, identifying the largest problems facing the organization, not even looking at solutions at this point
        • This keeps your executives from latching on to one of those magic button types of solutions that don’t actually address the original problem you are trying to address in the first place
      • Once the highest priority problems are identified, then it’s time for some upfront solutioning of those problems by some really smart people
        • Not all problems will be analyzed, only the most important ones
      • Once high-level solutions are determined, then the executives prioritize these solutions
        • Not all solutions will be accepted
        • If done in earnest, you’re left with the projects that are most important to the strategic direction of your organization
  • Increases organizational knowledge (the more you experiment, the more you learn).
  • Creates a culture of problem-solving and critical thinking (as an organization, we now spend more time identifying the real problem)

Track II: Good Times, Bad Times

  • Make no mistake; this is not easy. Implementing lean project management into an organization takes time and effort.
    • You’ve got to remember you’re rewiring brains to think scientifically, and not everyone will adapt at the same time.
  • It may be painful to coordinate a four-month project cycle but it’s way less painful than working on a year-long project that gets cut nine months into the work (or worse, gets implemented with awful results)

Track III: Ramble None

  • Stay laser focused on strategic initiatives.
    • Executive leaders should prioritize each and every piece of project work to focus on during the project cycle
  • Get good at saying “no.” Say no to non-value-add work early and often.
    • Identify loser projects quickly and preferably before they even begin
    • Say no to pet projects
      • Prioritization is a group process, not a process for the executive with the loudest voice
  • Both IT projects and business projects go through this process.

Track IV: The Song Remains the Same

  • The process remains the same until conscious improvements are made to the process.
  • Common things you should build into your own process:
    • Whatever lean project management process you implement should be:
      • Adaptable/ Flexible
        • The last thing you want to do is say that your new lean project management process is the best thing ever and gospel for all to follow
        • It should be tailored for your organization
        • You should seek feedback regularly
      • Transparent
        • No room for communication breakdown
      • Empowering for everyone involved
        • Lean project management works when your people are engaged
      • Scientific at heart
        • You either prove your hypothesis (achieve your target condition) or you don’t
    • Time to Learn
      • Most places I’ve worked at either skip lessons learned sessions or gloss over it
      • We spend a lot of time looking at what worked and what didn’t.
        • It’s a huge indicator to figuring out which direction to move toward next
    • Time to celebrate
      • When each project cycle is complete, take pause to acknowledge both your accomplishments and what you’ve collectively learned as an organization
    • The ability to fail early
      • Sometimes expectations just aren’t met, perhaps there were a lot of promises that didn’t pan out. Learn from this and adjust
    • Capacity to say “no.”
      • Don’t be afraid to send the bad projects to the gallows pole, especially the ones that cost a lot of silver and gold for very little value in return

Track V: Stairway to Improvement

  • It’s better to be approximately right than absolutely wrong.
  • At the end of each cycle, spend time reviewing your project process. Were there common challenges across all projects in the project cycle?
  • If something worked well, think about taking action to implement the thing that worked. Move toward things that work well and away from things that don’t.
  • Each project cycle, our project management team, creates a consolidated top 5 list of problems that occurred. Next, we discuss each problem to determine if the problem can be broken down to a root cause. Then, we determine if any of the problems are worth solving. If so, then we look at solutions to one or more of the specific problems.

Track VI: Houses of the Holy

  • Lean thinking impacts everyone in an organization, especially the executives and management.
  • It’s a transformation of the way you think, not a religious experience.

Track VII: When the Levee Breaks, Figure Out Your Next Target Condition

  • Even when the levee breaks, don’t worry because you’ve got options. The trick is to acknowledge the setback and understand your current state situation.
  • Once you understand your current state, figure out where you want to be, your target condition.
  • Once you’ve determined your target condition of where you want to be, you’ll know if you should rebuild the levee, or start from scratch with a different solution.

Parting thoughts:

Even though my organization’s initial project results while listening to the album have been largely positive, they can be better.

Also, my organization’s Led Zeppelin album of lean project management is different than your organization’s Led Zeppelin album of lean project management. You may have a few tracks that you like to play more loudly than others. You may not like the last song at all and leave it off the album altogether. You’ve got your own objectives, your own target future state to get to. Copying another band won’t get you where you want to go.

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