Lean PPM – portfolio management without the complexity

Lean PPM

More and more organizations are adopting a Lean PPM (project portfolio management) approach to managing their projects and resources.

There is greater pressure on organizations today of any size and industry to focus on being lean and agile and trying to do more with less.

And they are realizing immense benefits by rethinking how they manage their projects, resources and portfolio.

And here’s why.

People are now waking up to the fact that overly complex ways of managing their project portfolio doesn’t work. And perhaps simpler is better.

But do you know what Lean PPM is, the benefits and should you adopt it?

And confused about which Lean PPM software to use?

Let’s jump right in and try and answer some of these questions.

What is Lean PPM?

Part art, part science. 

PPM (project portfolio management) involves getting command over your projects and resources and directing them to work on the most important things for your organization. 

Lean PPM is a way to bring the benefits of PPM without the cost and implementation headaches of traditional PPM tools.

And here is the thing.

Lean PPM is in part a reaction to traditional overly complex ways of managing project portfolios and part due to the increasing use of agile delivery techniques.

To help explain this topic we have used some example screenshots from our resource management and Lean PPM software Kelloo.

Kelloo's portfolio management tools

Prioritization, resource planning and reporting in one place. Kelloo helps you get the right people onto the right projects at the right time.

Why adopt Lean PPM?

Organizations know that innovation is king and the ability to adapt quickly to changing business demands is imperative to be successful.

And having seen how successful agile has been in helping software development organizations deliver more they have adapted the principles to help them manage their portfolios.

And importantly, it is working.

Back to basics approach to PPM

We have learnt over the years that organizations get the most value out of doing a small number of things right. 

Lean PPM is very much a back to basics approach which lets you focus your efforts on the things that matter.

And the good news is…

Lean PPM eliminates time consuming PPM processes and governance and helps to increase the speed of decision making and planning.

The fact is, research constantly shows that most PMO functions (project management office) operate at a low level of maturity and the need for simpler PPM tools and ways of working becomes essential.

Traditional PPM tools are overly complex and full of features most organizations will never need or use. And this is one of the reasons for the alarmingly high implementation failure rates.

Many PPM tools contain an array of functionality, much of which is rarely used in practice, making tool selection complicated and time-consuming. Gartner - Best Practice for PPM Tool Selection.


Agile delivery

Business and technology leaders are under constant pressure to innovate and deliver new products and technology solutions for their customers. 

And agile delivery has enabled them to do this.

So it was an obvious next step that organizations would seek other ways in which they could adopt agile principles within other areas of their organization.

And the best bit is.

Adopting an agile approach to PPM allows decisions to be made quicker and less time to be spent managing the portfolio.

Lean PPM takes a lightweight approach to project portfolio management. It dispenses with overly complex tools and focuses on the processes that add most value.

Principles and objectives of Lean PPM

Like agile delivery, Lean PPM accepts that change is inevitable and that external and internal factors will cause plans and projects to shift.

So Lean PPM accommodates change and constantly questions if the organization is working on the right things. 

With Lean PPM detailed long range plans are dispensed with. 

Simplicity becomes the focus.

A light touch planning approach is the norm which plans in just enough detail and just far enough into the future to enable decisions to be made.

Here are some of the key objectives and principles behind Lean PPM:

  1. Maximizing the throughput of value.
  2. Prioritizing work to deliver highest value work first.
  3. Aligning work to the organizations capacity.
  4. Process and tools are “lightweight” and provide just enough detail.
  5. Revisiting plans and reviewing status of work often.

Lean PPM process

Balancing an organization’s portfolio of investments, programs and projects remains a critical function in a Lean PPM environment. 

However the steps to achieving this and the focus changes with Lean PPM.

And this is important.

Complex problems are not always solved by complicated solutions. Rather than try to manage every part of the portfolio process, Lean PPM focuses effort on the areas that deliver most value.

Compress the planning timeframe

Due to shifting priorities, it is no longer feasible to develop multiyear plans. Lean PPM instead lays out a vision of what the organization wants to achieve over the next 12 months or so. 

This is usually envisioned using a road map showing the different product streams, deliverables and milestones the organization is aiming to deliver on.

Capture and prioritize demand

Organizations using Lean PPM thrive on innovation. This means they generate lots of ideas for projects which need to be captured. 

In many ways this becomes a project backlog in the same way that an agile project has a feature backlog.

Lean PPM works on the presumption that you can’t do everything you are being asked to do, so project requests must be prioritized so you can focus effort on the things with most value to your organization.

Balancing demand against resource supply

Once priorities have been established, the focus is then on organizing and planning the portfolio to ensure resources are working on the right things.

While this normally means allocating resources to the highest priority projects, there are other factors that form part of this process. For example certain projects may have other enabling projects or work that need completing first.

Resources are often allocated to multiple projects at the same time, so having a strategy to manage resource utilization is required.

In Kelloo we use a simple to understand visual heat map to show resource capacity and supply issues.

Resource utilization

Lean PPM and agile vs. waterfall

It is a misconception that for an organization to adopt Lean PPM they need to run agile projects. 

Lean PPM is a way of managing the portfolio and has little interest in the process used to deliver the projects. 

In fact…

Organizations can quite happily cohabit agile and waterfall projects and share resources between them given the right tools and processes.

However, for organizations that do run agile projects, there ultimately comes a point where alignment of their PPM process with their agile delivery process often becomes essential.

Having them move in step allows them to achieve the full benefits of agile. Adopting Lean PPM is often a key requirement for organizations who are looking to implement a scaled agile framework.

Selecting Lean PPM software

Before we look at the important factors in selecting a lean PPM tool, we should distinguish between project management tools and portfolio management tools.

Project management software is used to manage the details of a project. For waterfall projects MS Project is often the tool of choice.

For projects with agile delivery, there has been an explosion of project management tools in recent years such as Jira, Smartsheet, Asana, Monday and Trello.

What these tools all have in common is that they have a single project focus when it comes to planning and managing resources and secondly their focus is low level work planning.

Portfolio management software on the other hand takes a strategic high level view of work.

Allow me to explain.

Portfolio management is about planning which projects are happening when and has little interest in the detailed work planning of the projects.

Importantly, portfolio management software also takes a cross project view of resources.

It often makes better sense to have different tools for each process. Selecting a portfolio management tool for the strategic level activities and allowing project managers to use whatever project management tool they wish for lower level delivery planning provides a huge benefit.

Your PPM maturity is a key consideration when selecting PPM software

Your organization’s PPM capabilities are the number one factor when selecting PPM software. 

Selecting PPM software that is too complex or has features your organization does not need is a sure fire way to cause your PPM implementation to fail.

So let me help you with some advice.

Most organizations have a very low maturity level or capability when it comes to PPM. According to Gartner, around 80% of PMO’s are level 1 or 2 maturity which is a low capability. More worryingly, they state that to be successful with most of the PPM tools in their “Magic Quadrant”, you need to have surpassed Level 2 and are moving toward or are at Level 3 on their own PPM maturity model. Which means that most PPM tools are not suited to the majority of organizations.

Lean PPM software features

We are big advocates at Kelloo that complex problems do not always need complex solutions. Here are the key features we think you should look for in any Lean PPM tool.


A road map gives you a simple way to get your team on board with your organization’s strategy. It shows the products and solutions you aim to deliver and the key events and milestones supporting them.

It is an invaluable took to communicate what is happening when. Here is an example of the road map in Kelloo showing the various projects and agile sprints being planned.

Agile Roadmap

An easy way to prioritize your projects

The next thing you want to be able to do is organize your projects by priority. And for each project roughly estimate the amount of work needed and the types of resources who need to do the work.

It is important that the Lean PPM tool does not require you to enter specific named resources at this point. Rather you should describe the type of skills that is required for each project. What you are trying to get is an aggregate total of the skill needs in your organization.

Prioritization of work in Kelloo is done within the resource planner. You simply drag projects into the required priority sequence and Kelloo will automatically use the priorities when working out resource allocations.

Prioritize projects

Resource capacity planning

Capacity planning involves taking your prioritized list of projects and associated resource demand and comparing this to your resource capacity.

There will be a point where your project demand exceeds your resource capacity. This is the cut off line. Projects below the cut off line cannot be done unless you hire more resource, re-organize priorities or re-schedule higher priority work.

It is essential that the Lean PPM tool lets you see the impact of adding resource capacity to your plan. This lets you model different recruitment options to solve resource constraints.

When capacity planning in Kelloo, the resource heatmap displayed below the timeline allows you to easily see if you have any resources constraints or issues.

resource management software

Ability to include agile and traditional waterfall projects

Taking an agile approach to delivering projects is becoming the norm in many organizations. So even if you don’t run agile projects now you may in the future. So it makes sense to look for a Lean PPM tool that can work with both your agile and non-agile projects.

When planning in Kelloo, both agile and traditional waterfall projects can be planned.

Edit sprint

Resource planning

Resource planning is the process where you best allocate people to projects. In most organizations the reality is that people work on more than one project at the same time and their available labor time needs to be balanced and split between projects.

So an essential feature of a Lean PPM tool is to allow you to balance your people across projects and manage their utilization levels.

Reporting and analytics

Lean PPM takes a much lighter approach to reporting. Another factor is that different project management and delivery tools are often used each with different metrics. At the Lean PPM level it is often sufficient to report using easily understood red-yellow-green statuses. Here is an example PPM dashboard from Kelloo.

Project portfolio management dashboard

Kelloo also includes a powerful yet easy to use report builder. Which means you can configure your reports just how you want them.

Resource management reporting

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