Project management vs. process improvement vs. Six Sigma vs. Lean (Part 1 of 2)

Project management vs. process improvement vs. Six Sigma vs. Lean (Part 1 of 2)

A few weeks ago, the Director of Professional Development and Recruitment at an AmLaw 100 firm asked me to clarify the differences between project management, process improvement, Six Sigma, and Lean.  This was a very sophisticated client who had been researching this area for months, but she had heard many different claims and interpretations from consultants who were selling competing solutions.  In legal blogs, the babble over this has gotten so confusing that some of the lawyers I talk to think these are four different names for the same thing.  They are not.

If you look up the definition of project management in ten different books, you will find ten slightly different definitions.  One of my favorites is from Rita Mulcahy's PM Crash Course: "[Project management is] a systematic process used to initiate, plan, execute, control and close a project to meet defined objectives" (p. 9).  I like this definition because it is short, it is simple, and it specifically lists the five key functions emphasized in the Bible of the field, the Project Management Body of Knowledge: initiate, plan, execute, control and close. 

In our new Certified Legal Project ManagerTM program, lawyers review assigned readings from six leading textbooks, and apply them to their practice.  We recently analyzed the content of these books to see how much space was devoted to process improvement, Six Sigma, and/or Lean.  For the five texts that survey the entire field, the answer was 1% (26 pages out of 2651).  For the only book which is specifically about legal project management, my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, the proportion rose to 9%, which still leaves 91% of my book focused on the rest of project management, and organized in terms of eight key issues that matter to lawyers:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities 
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks to the schedule and budget
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communication and expectations
  8. Negotiate change orders

In our just in time training programs, we ask lawyers to review this list and pick out the issue that matters most in their practice today.  What issue would they like to work on?  Exactly what should they do about it?  Our goal is to come up with immediate and practical steps that each lawyer can take that same day.  While our legal project management training aims to change one thing at a time for one lawyer at time, legal process improvement training often tries to change everything all at once, for a practice group or for an entire firm.

According to Wikipedia, process improvement aims to "identify, analyze and improve existing processes within an organization to meet new goals and objectives."  Six Sigma is described as "a set of practices designed to improve manufacturing processes...by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors)."  Finally, "Lean is a production practice that...is centered on preserving value with less work." 

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