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According to Koskela and Howell (2002), an explicit project management theory still lacks in prior literature. Current theories fall short of explaining issues in project management such as lack of commitment, frequent failures, and slow methodological renewal. In general, a theory has several functions ranging from providing explanation to knowledge transfer as depicted in Figure 1. The need for a proper theory that integrates all the intended functions is self-evident.

Figure 1 Functions of Theories adapted from Koskela and Howell (2002)

The project management theory should be prescriptive, illustrating how actions contribute to goals as shown in Figure 2. In simple terms, project management is a set of actions that involves setting the system of designing and making, controlling this system to achieve production, and seeking improvements of the system. Those actions are directed towards achieving a set of goals including realizing the intended products while minimizing cost, optimizing utilization level, and satisfying the needs of customers.

Figure 2 Theory of Project Management adapted from Koskela and Howell (2002)

The theoretical foundation of project management as established in PMBOK Guide (PMBOK Guide, Third edition, 2004) and PMI can be split into theory of project and theory of management. Figure 3 illustrates some of the assumptions adopted by the PMBOK Guide. There are several deficiencies with the current established management practices of the PMBOK Guide.

Figure 3 PMBOK Assumptions adapted from Ballard (2006)

For instance, the underlying theory of a project focuses on breaking down the scope or work effort into pieces or chunks called activities or tasks that are sequentially dependent. Such activities and tasks are taken as a unit of analysis in the processes of project management where they undergo centralized management and control. This approach rests on the Transformation view of production, which focuses on transforming a set of inputs to outputs, with the belief that optimizing the pieces will optimize the whole. In doing so, other aspects of production such as flow and value are overlooked. Alternative views are Flow and Value views of production.

The former, embodied in Just-in-Time (JIT) and Lean production, tackles the uncertainty and variability in production, and aims at eliminating all kinds of wastes from the adopted processes. Light is shed not only on the tasks themselves, but also on the linkages between the tasks, reflecting the reality of construction. A reliable flow of work can be achieved through the Last Planner System (LPS), which is a system of lean production management that aims at increasing planning reliability, improving production performance, and creating predictable workflow in both design and construction operations (Hamzeh et al., 2012).

To realize the aforementioned goals, steps advocated by LPS include:

(1) Planning in greater detail when approaching the date of performing the work.
(2) Developing the work plans with the participants who will perform the work.
(3) Identifying and removing constraints ahead of time.
(4) Making reliable promises and emphasizing coordination/negotiation between participants.
(5) Learning from failures (Hamzeh et al., 2012).

As for the Value view of production, concepts are developed around the customer value in order to deliver the purpose. The clearer the value from the customer is understood, the easier the allocation of different project requirements becomes.

However, as the project progresses, the owner and stakeholders engage in extensive discussions to explore various value attributes and ways of delivering such attributes. As a result, value evolves, and the dynamic nature of value needs to be emphasized (Khalifeh and Hamzeh, 2019). Since LPS offers all stakeholders the opportunity to have a clear say in the development process, it embraces value generation through decentralizing the decision-making process (Khalifeh and Hamzeh, 2019).

A continuation of this discussion is provided in “Is Lean Thinking a Remedy for the Obsolete Project Management Theories? Part II”.


Ballard, G. (2006). Introduction to Lean Project Delivery-Managing Project Production Systems [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from University of California at Berkeley CE 290M.

Hamzeh, F., Ballard, G., & Tommelein, I. D. (2012). Rethinking Lookahead Planning to Optimize Construction Workflow. Lean Construction Journal.

Hamzeh, F. R., El Samad, G., & Emdanat, S. (2019). Advanced metrics for construction planning. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 145(11), 04019063.

Khalife, S., & Hamzeh, F. (2019). A framework for understanding the dynamic nature of value in design and construction. In Proc. 27th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) (Vol. 1, pp. 617-628).

Koskela, L. J., & Howell, G. (2002). The underlying theory of project management is obsolete. In Proceedings of the PMI research conference (pp. 293-302). PMI.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) (3rd ed.). Project Management Institute.

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PhD Student, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta (U of A), Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

PhD Student, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta (U of A), Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta (U of A), Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.