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Author: Peter Stumpf

Best Practices – Managing Risks in Lean or Agile Projects

‘Risk Management,’ is a project requirement and project deliverable emphasized and taught to developing and experienced project managers.

Why are only very few projects using risk management tools such as lessons learned to report, understand and assess what went well and what went wrong in a project? This is particularly significant if lessons learned address issues or risks that could have catastrophic effects on human life, business, or the environment. This paper describes best practices and three key lessons learned on how to manage risks, that highlight the necessity for project managers to adopt new management techniques such as Agile, Lean and Kanban in order to manage complex, multidisciplinary and cross-border projects.


A new generation of project managers, who work in an increasingly complex technological, international and multidisciplinary environment, require mastery of new tricks of the project management trade in order to diligently and ethically address past project lessons. This ensures that problems of the past are not repeated in new projects.

Lessons learned from several international projects illustrate past and current experiences to integrate best practice project management techniques. The author describes three areas of behavioral techniques and management practices, and how to bring these ideas to developing project managers.

Ethics and accountability are the foundation of good technological and business management. Besides the culture of accountability, best practices of collaboration and lean project management apply throughout the entire project management process groups as depicted in Figure 1.

stumpf 02212018aFigure 1 – Lessons Learned applied to all project management process groups

Lesson Learned # 1 – Ethics and Accountability

The first lesson is based on experiences of projects being affected by limited resources, constantly increasing technological complexities and increasing stakeholder demands. Traditionally, projects with higher complexity employed large project teams in order to focus efforts on design and testing of deliverables against specifications. Today’s market situation demands businesses reduce costs in order to stay competitive which results in reducing the size of project teams and outsourcing or moving project work to lower cost international partners. Executing and controlling projects has become more and more difficult, requiring the integration of stringent processes, tools and rules on how to do work across borders directly, or with virtual teams. Project teams easily become fragmented and dysfunctional with team members’ capabilities and competencies tasked to the limit. Doing more with less drastically increases the risk for errors while it is not always clear who bears responsibility and accountability for the results of these errors. Lessons learned focus on enabling project teams to error-proof their work and the work of their peers. This is especially important for new product development projects where errors or faults that transfer into the market could catastrophically affect customer safety, business, or our environment. Ethics in engineering, project and business management is unequivocally integrated into each and every project. The author recommends applying risk management techniques to continuously focus on error-proofing all work from the beginning to the end of a project as depicted in Figure 2. This will also enable team members to become accountable.

stumpf 02212018bFigure 2 – Applying risk management throughout the project life cycle

Techniques that instill taking responsibility and accountability in daily work include the following best practices:

  • Engage all team members, management and the customer in practicing risk management as a key project requirement. This allows project teams to get continuous feedback from customers and product owners on what works and what does not work. A key risk management technique is to collect, review and implement lessons learned.
  • Implement Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) for supply chain, design, manufacturing, and services to assess the probability and consequences of risks and lessons learned repeating from past projects. FMEA assessments are now commonly used in process, automotive and aerospace industries where zero tolerance of failure is the norm.
  • Continuously review product designs on their capability to withstand malfunctions even after release to market. This requires logging and assessing product failures from the field and correcting these failures in new product releases.
  • Assess designs for manufacturability. This will ensure that the final product can repeatedly be built without risk to quality, functionality or the employee building the product.

Net results for projects that practice risk management techniques as part of daily project management are illustrated by the following observations:

  • Project team members whose behavior is to resolve risks and issues are more willing to take responsibilities and be accountable for their work.
  • Project team members help each other to control the quality of work by continuous peer-assessment.
  • Ethics and diligence flourish in businesses whose employees clearly understand how risks impact human life, property, and the environment regardless of differences in social norms or demographics.

Figure 3 summarizes the goals, best practices and net results of ethically managing projects.

stumpf 02212018cFigure 3 Summary of Lesson Learned # 1 – Ethics and Accountability

Lesson Learned # 2 – Collaboration

The second lesson learned is the realization of confusion and loss of focus by project teams and management who do not collaborate. The effect of this fragmentation is that stakeholders work to different goals and different rules; for example, management reducing resources requiring project teams to do more with less. An outcome of this can be that both management and project teams do not find the time or adequate resources to review, assess and implement lessons learned. Recent accidents in the oil and gas industry, as well as naval and rail transportation industries, suggest that systemic lack of collaboration between product and process owners and a lack of integrating lessons learned have had catastrophic effects on our society.
Businesses and project teams that are willing to change behaviors find ways to deal with resource constraints and collaboration issues in daily work. Project managers, project team members, and senior managers develop new skills in communication, collaboration and a mindset to focus only on the most important goals.

Examples of best practice project management techniques that enable collaboration and team work are described below:

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  • Collaboration in projects is characterized by project team members, management and customers working together to resolve issues and risks and to enable completion of project deliverables that meet all stakeholder expectations. In a collaborating team, everybody becomes a stakeholder.
  • Collaborating team members practice transparent, honest and direct communication. They are willing to face problems and thrive in team work to resolve issues and risks regardless of complexity. The project manager acts as coach or change agent providing guidance to team members and management.
  • Co-locating project team members into a work environment that allows communication and dialogue without isolating team members can be accomplished by creating the project or Obeya rooms (Obeya derives from Japanese, meaning “large room”). These rooms are designed to break down silos by eliminating office or cubical walls that hinder face to face dialogue between peers and management. Face to face communication is preferred at all times using best practice communication and listening techniques that are described in the works of Stanfield [1], Patterson et al. [2] and Grenny et al. [3], [4].
  • Reducing complexity and length of meetings is crucial. This is possible by engaging team members in short regular meetings which allow every member to participate without fear of speaking up. Such meetings are referred to as scrums which are cornerstones of Lean and Agile project management methodologies. How to practice scrums effectively is described in the works of Anderson [5].
  • Daily scrums allow pooling of knowledge with every project member understanding the status of issues and risks, agreeing on tasks, and short or long-term goals. This process proves very beneficial when managing international or virtual project teams that require constant engagement and collaboration. It also allows the project manager to continuously monitor the pulse of the project.
  • A collaborating team avoids multitasking and focuses work on critical activities only. All stakeholders are empowered to say ‘no’ to tasks that distract from the immediate goal. They plan and manage their activities, which eliminates micro-managing by project or functional mangers. This requires trust in individual team members and continuous coaching on safe communication. Safe communication, which is also described as robust dialogue in the works of Bossidy et al [6], is characterized by active listening, honest and open dialogue without fear of reprisals. As a result, positive team relationships develop that continuously encourage direct and transparent dialogue with common and mutually agreeable purpose.

Figure 4 summarizes the goals, best practices and net results of collaborating project teams

stumpf 02212018dFigure 4 Summary of Lesson Learned # 2 – Collaboration

Lesson Learned # 3 – Lean project management techniques

The third lesson learned describes state-of-the-art lean project management for collaborating project teams that include Visual, Kanban and Agile project management techniques which are readily described in the works of Anderson [5], Womack et al [8] and Beitinger [9]. These techniques prove very beneficial for managing complex project work while creating a stimulating work environment. An example is that cross-border, international project team members who work across different time zones with language and cultural barriers are eager to collaborate as a team but fragment when trying to use common traditional project management processes. Traditional Gantt charts that consist of hundreds or thousands of activities create confusion and frustration among project team members. Lean project management visual boards which replace complex Gantt charts enable team members to understand how to synergize their daily work effectively. They also allow managers and the customer to view individual activities against a holistic top-down plan in order to provide constructive feedback and guidance to the project team. Gantt charting is still one of most commonly applied project planning processes, as described by PMBOK [7].

Figure 5 depicts a Visual Project Management board (VPM-board) for a complex project which is displayed in an Obeya room. This VPM-board is viewed and updated daily by a co-located project team and managers. Such large or complex projects require dividing the project team into sub-teams who maintain Sub-Visual Project Management boards (Sub-VPM-boards) to manage their daily activities. Daily or weekly updates from sub-project teams are then integrated into the overall project plan by updating the main VPM-board. Reviewing daily activities of sub-project teams against the main project plan allows each and every project member to see their individual progress against the main goal. This would be impossible if one was to view progress of completing an individual task in a highly complex Gantt chart.

The Sub-VPM-board depicted in Figure 6 is described in greater detail in order to demonstrate how lean project management techniques are applied by a collaborating team.

stumpf 02212018eFigure 5 – Example of a visual project management board in an Obeya room.

stumpf 02212018fFigure 6 – Example of a visual sub-project management board (Sub-VPM-board)

The Sub-VPM board is divided into 3 main sections. Text boxes on the left-hand side detail information that describes a project’s name, key contacts, purpose, success criteria, and deliverables. This information enables team members and management to recap project scope, deliverables and how to measure success.

Text boxes on the right hand side describe opportunities, risks and tasks that require help from stakeholders outside of the project team. Opportunities could be cost-saving ideas and project improvement ideas which can be ranked based on the ease of implementation versus impact to the project. Collaborating project teams decide on improvements to remove obstacles and increase project performance during daily scrums. Solutions are then discussed and implemented at the end of each week. Risks are identified and rated by probability of occurrence and consequence to the project or customer. The net result is that project team members and management can see high impact risks and opportunities at a glance. Skipping or avoiding risks is very difficult since they remain literally in front of their eyes until fully mitigated. This holds the project team and management accountable to quality and ethics. If project members or managers require a recap on robust dialogue and safe communication, key instructions on collaboration techniques are listed on the right hand side of the Sub-VPM board.

The center section of the Sub-VPM-board visualizes how project tasks or activities are executed over a one week cycle. In this example swim lanes are populated by specific team members of specific functional competencies. Swim lane 1 represents tasks for two project members (A & B) from design. Swim lane 2 represents tasks for one project member from testing (C) and, similarly, swim lanes 3 and 4 represent tasks for other project team members from build and testing, respectively. Every sub-team member is described by a different colour of assigned tasks. Each active task is described on a sticker. Work in progress is visualized by each project team member moving his or her tasks along swim lanes. State of completion or risks/issues are visualized by different colours. Project team members and the project manager are now able to identify critical paths, overlapping efforts, intersecting activities and barriers very easily. This enables the team to direct efforts to the most important tasks, removing barriers and synergizing or aggregating overlapping activities. An example of this, using rules of Kanban described by Anderson [5], is that task-1 of designer A and task-1 of designer B have reached a critical intersection point which requires testing their design. Tester C of swim lane-2 is now required to test the design which is task-1 of tester C and, tester C is to record all test data which is task-2. Designers A and B are not permitted to proceed until their design is tested and approved. They can now work on their next most important activity, task-2 and, possibly a new task depending on how long they will wait for test results. Once test results are approved, which is the next intersecting line; the design will be built and tested by other project team members applying the same rules. Remember that activities are defined for a one-week cycle only. This allows a high degree of focus when communicating work in progress to achieve short-term goals as well as opportunities and risks during daily scrums. Working meetings to identify and resolve project issues or risks are planned during the scrum but executed separately with key decision makers.

The project manager can further focus efforts of project team members to what really matters as described by Bossidy et al. [6] while eliminating multitasking by managing project activities following Kanban and Agile methodologies as described by Anderson [5]. Coaching and mentoring all project and business stakeholders is critical to achieve sustainable, continuous improvements as described in a case study by Beitinger [9].

Figure 7 summarizes the goals, best practices and net results of using scrums effectively while Figure 8 depicts the key questions project team members will report during a scrum followed by additional discussions between team members who have aligned their tasks. Important is to recognize that the scum focuses on each team member advising on the task that was completed on the previous day and, the task being worked on today and if there are any obstacles or impediments that require help from other team members or management. After scrum meetings will focus on scheduling work between interrelated tasks or with help from other team members. Risks, Issues or product defects will be flagged and considered at any time.

stumpf 02212018gFigure 7 – Summary on effective scrum techniques.

stumpf 02212018hFigure 8 – Questions to ask during a scrum and information to share during planning meetings.

Teaching developing project managers and students at the University and College level is not an easy task. Presenting real-life examples helps to illustrate the topic of risk management and helps to substantiate the need to manage risks at all times ethically and with a focus on due diligence as described in the paper presented by Stumpf and Northrop [10]. This paper also describes classroom teaching experiences that illustrate how developing project managers can be introduced to these new project management techniques.


The author describes how techniques of collaboration and lean project management enable project teams to excel when executing complex projects. Tools and techniques such as visualizing work in progress, managing risks and facing problems head-on with a collaborating project team that communicates with focus and robust dialog will enable high-quality project work with the highest degree of ethics and accountability. Training best practices on risk management for developing project managers on principles of Lean, Kanban, and Agile management techniques is enabled by use of a step by step integration of fundamental rules from understanding the needs of ethics & accountability to modern techniques of managing projects with a focus on completing project tasks while reducing waste.

[1] Stanford, R. Brian, The Art of Focused Conversation, 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada (2000).
[2] Patterson Kerry, Grenny Joseph, McMillan Ron, Switzler Al, Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, McGraw-Hill, New York, United States of America (2002).
[3] Grenny Joseph, Patterson Kerry, McMillan Ron, Switzler Al, Crucial Confrontations, Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behaviour, McGraw-Hill, New York, United States of America (2004).
[4] Grenny Joseph, Maxfield David, McMillan Ron, Switzler Al, Influence, The Power to Change Anything, McGraw-Hill Education; 2 edition (2013).
[5] Anderson David J., Kanban, Successful Evolutionary Change for New Technology Business, Sequim, Washington, United States of America (2010).
[6] Bossidy Larry, Charan Ram, Burck Charles, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Random House Business Books, London, England (2011).
[7] A guide to the project management body of knowledge: PMBOK guide Fifth edition, Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, United States of America (2013).
[8] Womack James P., Jones Daniel T., Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Productivity Press; 2nd edition, New York, United States of America (2003).
[9] Beitinger Gunter, Successful lean manufacturing implementation: 5 fundamental jigsaw pieces–Part 1 of 5, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering (2012).
[10] Stumpf P., Northrop P., THREE LESSONS LEARNED: TECHNIQUES FOR DEVELOPING HIGHLY EFFICIENT PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN AN EVER CHANGING BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT, Proceedings of the 2015 Project Management Paper Competition, University of Toronto (2015).