The Paradox of Project Management: Mass Producing Vs One Piece Flow

Posted on March 9, 2010


Toyota is as much a state of mind as it is  a car company. Although the competitivity and longivity of Toyota can be explained by the full exploitation of the Total Production System (TPS), the true foundations reside in its culture and the application of 14 management principles.

This serie of posts discuss the opportunity to leverage these principles within a project management practice, should it be internal or external to an Enterprise.

Suggested by Jeffrey K. Liker, these 14 principles can be integrated in four broader categories: Philosophy, Process, People/Partners, and Problem Solving.


Principle 2. Create continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.

  • Redesign work processes to achieve high value-added, continuos flow. Strive to cut back to zero the amount of time that any work project is sitting idle or waiting for someone to work on it.
  • Create flow to move material and information fast as well as to link process and people together so that problems surface right away.
  • Make flow evident throughout the organizational culture. It is a key to a true continuous improvement process and to developing people.

This second principle highlights several areas to focus on: Value-added task, Idle activity, make it visible, and accelerate flow. It is amazing to see how the project management discipline can be assimilated to a mass producing system instead of being a one piece flow:

  • Tasks are often grouped by competencies or discipline
  • Pace and organization of functional workshops are different
  • Issues are not shared outside sub functional groups
  • Documentation can sit a long time before validation

Let’s consider some of the repetitive tasks that should take place in a project:

Very often these activities are grouped by functional area and specific experts meet together to sequentially address all of these tasks. It creates a huge burden on the scheduling side, hides inefficiencies of the sub organizations and create waste by trying to maximize the utilization of each project resources.  This is in a nutshell the standard characteristics of a mass production system.

In “One Piece flow” if there is an issue in deliverable it causes the entire project to stop executing. Jim Collins refers this as positioning red flags mechanism in the process and it can easily take place in any project. It forces problems to surface immediately and make the entire project team to address them.

In Enterprise Projects such as implementing an ERP, CRM, SCM …, I see this paradox of mass producing system in project management causing the well known project overruns. The key generators of such failure is often coming from:

  1. Poor or inadequate project methodology
  2. Limited multi skilled consultants that force the creation of independent sub organizations within the project
  3. No continuous improvement efforts focusing on value added tasks and willingness to stick with rigid process to an apparent control of the project.

Application of a true one piece flow system could deliver higher productivity, real flexibility, builds in quality an improved moral.