At the Intersection of Process Improvement & Project Management

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Legal Managed Services, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Process Management

process improvement

This article was co-authored by Frederick J. Esposito, Jr, MBA, CLM, and Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD


“Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

—William Pollard

In previous columns, we demonstrated how important it is for law firms to understand their own pricing economics, and explored how Legal Lean Sigma® process improvement and project management can help further this understanding and improve pricing strategies.

Legal Lean Sigma® is a unique methodology that translates tried and true approaches from manufacturing to frame works and tools specifically for use by the legal industry. These, in turn can help us recognize and solve problems, including better performance. Because the focus is on efficiency, Legal Lean Sigma® sits at the crossroads of at least three concepts — process improvement, project management, and pricing – as well as others, such as strategy, client and employee experience, and diversity and inclusion.

The combination of process improvement and project management, as applied through Legal Lean Sigma®, can be very powerful indeed.

What Is Process Improvement?

We view process improvement as a means to help us determine the best way to carry out a certain kind of work to better achieve efficiency, a high-quality of work and service, high probability of successful outcomes, and predictability. But how does process improvement work in a real-world practice?

Simply put, process improvement is the systematic practice of analyzing, searching, solving, and controlling a given matter or other work situation. This facilitates the ability to deliver that matter more efficiently, successfully, and predictably.

Legal Lean Sigma® identifies four steps to process improvement:

  1. Analyzing — Examining the process to better understand how it is currently carried out.
  2. Searching — Finding issues, problems, and opportunities for potential improvement and then prioritizing them.
  3. Solving & Capturing — Employing tools and techniques that will allow you to solve priority problems and capture any identified significant opportunities.
  4. Controlling — Ensuring that the new process, as improved, delivers the anticipated benefits.

In fact, Lean Sigma uses a disciplined problem-solving framework known as DMAIC: Define the problem and why it needs to be solved; Measure the current performance of the process; Analyze the opportunities to reduce waste or variation; Improve the process by identifying, implementing, and validating process changes; and Control the process by implementing methods to ensure improvements will be sustainable.

There are, however, other ways to approach the methodology of process improvement. This includes “pure technology” that requires keeping up with new tools and innovations and matching those with your organization’s needs; and “business process redesign,” which begins with a “clean sheet of paper” and allows for the redesign of process, and often includes automation. For that and other types of work that involve Design Thinking, the Legal Lean Sigma Institute developed another novel approach that is specific to the legal space: Legal Lean Sigma Design®, which successfully combines process improvement and Design Thinking.

At the Legal Lean Sigma Institute, we believe so strongly that Lean and Sigma Sigma ought to be paired and that they help us achieve greater results when combined with project management. The Lean method and Six Sigma bring their strengths to this situation. For example, the Lean method looks for and relentlessly roots out eight separate kinds of waste in the process — defects, overproduction, wait-time, non-utilized talent, excess transportation, excess inventory, needless motion, and extra processing steps — to create simpler, faster processes. And Six Sigma works to understand the relationships between inputs and outputs, providing an application that is a more natural fit for processes that are repetitive, routine, and require a high degree of accuracy, like many legal work matters.

This combination of Lean (do the right things), Six Sigma (do things right), when paired with project management, allows us to do the right thing, the right way, the first time, every time in the legal profession. That is the Legal Lean Sigma Institute definition of efficiency.

Legal Lean

How Does Project Management Fit In?

Project management can be seen as a set of skills that ensures that, for a particular engagement, project or matter, as we use our “best process” appropriately and actively manage our schedules, staff, and deliverables throughout.

There are various project management models; some organizations have even branded their versions. At the Legal Lean Sigma Institute, our model includes the process and activities of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling resources, procedures, and protocols in order to achieve specific goals.

Simply, it’s the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements. Indeed, the fundamentals of project management are often quite logical, following a natural course from conception to completion of a required project. These steps include:

  • Assessing the situation
  • Identifying the desired outcome
  • Planning your work, including scoping
  • Preparing a budget
  • Doing the work
  • Monitoring the work
  • Closing the project, and
  • Capturing improvements for next time (this should be done throughout the matter or project)

In fact, these steps echo nicely with the actual steps in a legal matter lifecycle: intake, assess, select, plan, manage, and review.

Bringing PI and PM Together

As we better understand both process improvement and project management, we can easily see how important it is to employ them together. It is perfectly fine to be an excellent at managing a project, but if the underlying process is broken, project management only gets us so far. As a corollary, if we have an optimized process without good project management, we do not achieve that multiplier effect that comes from having an improved process that can be managed well.

In my next column, I want to examine the 10 different types of innovations, how they can be achieved, and what benefits they can bring.


Frederick J. Esposito, Jr, MBA, CLM, Chief Operating Officer of the regional law firm Rivkin Radler LLP, has more than 25 years of law and accounting firm experience and has been a Certified Legal Manager (CLM)SM since 2006. Fred is also a member of the Legal Lean Sigma Institute LLC faculty.

Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD, is the CEO and Founder of the Legal Lean Sigma Institute LLC and the creator of Legal Lean Sigma®. Contact: Catherine@LegalLeanSigma.com.

Legal Lean Sigma is a registered trademark of the Legal Lean Sigma Institute LLC. This content is protected by copyright owned by the Legal Lean Sigma Institute LLC and is used with permission.