The lean journey in IT

Lean is a methodology that every IT department can adopt to do things better, faster and cheaper. But what's more important than adopting the lean framework is transforming the culture to think lean.

blue fabric with concentric squares lean it
Credit: ZIPNON / Pixabay

Most people have heard the term lean as it pertains to productivity, and while they may not have a solid understanding of lean principles, they do know that it involves some kind of efficient approach that adds value to a process.

To gain an understanding of what lean is, it might be best to start out by explaining some of the things lean isn't — for instance, it isn't an acronym; it's more closely related to the relevant dictionary definition of lean, which is "characterized by economy."

Lean also does not rely on any set of tools or metrics to accomplish its economical objective, nor does it provide for certifications or levels of achievement along the way. It is certainly not a program that accomplishes economy through head count reduction and, in fact, lean isn't really a program at all.

At its core, lean is simply a philosophy that embraces the creation of maximum value for a customer while using minimal time, energy, resources and effort to achieve that goal. When you think about this philosophy, it would be pretty difficult for any working model to be more economical. So how are these economies actually achieved?

First of all, it requires that there is a thorough understanding of the processes being used to create value for the customer. Next, it's necessary to improve on those processes in every way possible. A second thrust of lean thinking is to develop and empower the people associated with those processes through coaching and problem-solving techniques, and finally to progress these lean-thinking people into roles of leadership and management, to perpetuate the lean philosophy.

This discussion will consider how lean initiatives can greatly benefit an IT department, and why a lean IT department can bring tremendous value to the company that it supports, above and beyond the traditional support these crucial staff members normally provide.

Why lean should be part of every IT department

Without a highly responsive IT department, many businesses would come to a screeching halt, or at least be substantially slowed in their ability to satisfy customers. However, when the members of an IT department are merely reacting to the demands of their own internal customers, i.e. company business personnel, they simply can't consistently be at their most effective. Far better would be for the entire IT department to be proactive in its approach, and anticipate the needs of internal customers. Here's why IT would benefit from applying lean initiatives in its overall strategy:

  • Reduced response time: One of the primary tenets of lean focuses on shortening lead times in order to meet the expectations of customers. Since lean offers principles and methodologies that can address and correct shortcomings in IT operations, it can cut through areas of waste that delay response time.
  • Good service requires alertness: When IT staffers are constantly fighting fires, chasing problems and struggling with overburdenment, it usually results in resource waste. By applying lean principles such as kanban and flash meetings, less effort is wasted and staffers appreciate conservation of their energies.
  • Minimize variation, decrease costs: Lean recognizes that the better you are able to manage variation, the more you can decrease overall cost. By measuring and controlling service desk requests and other IT projects, personnel and processes can be more easily influenced and streamlined, and all processes become more repeatable.

Examples of lean IT initiatives

There are literally dozens of ways in which lean principles can be applied to IT functions and projects, so processes can be streamlined and value can be added to the organization. Here are six ways that lean principles can make a real difference of economy in the IT department:

  • Database/data governance: In most companies, there's a huge amount of redundancy and waste in  information system databases, especially as it relates to customer data. This is a classic example of how implementing a data governance program can ensure data integrity and overcome the poor quality of database information.
  • Software development: Lean principles can be used to marry applications development and operations so that instead of finished software being simply dumped on the doorstep of operations, it is addressed in the context of its role throughout the whole value stream.
  • Adopt root-cause analysis: Because IT staffers are typically overworked and firefighting on the fly, they seldom have time to perform a full-blown root-cause analysis of recurring problems, especially when those problems are traceable to areas outside their own direct influence. The lean approach here would be to view the problem across all departments, and determine ultimate causes, measuring results and establishing processes that would prevent or minimize recurrence.
  • Fulfilling requests optimally: The area of fulfilling user requests can be a huge area of waste, and by applying lean principles, IT personnel can supply a solution that satisfies the requirements of the request without going overboard, and still maintaining economy. This approach trims away the fat, and provides a foundation for continuous service improvement.
  • Making IT systems scalable: When a business grows, IT services should scale up right along with it, ideally without incurring massive new costs for equipment and personnel. By building scalability into the IT infrastructure, little or no added cost is incurred when the opportunity for growth presents itself.
  • Streamlined help desk: At one time or another, most IT departments have probably attempted to revamp their help desk operations, simply because the tendency toward waste and slow response time is glaringly obvious. By looking at the help desk in terms if its entire value stream — i.e. across all departments — and by ensuring that overworked personnel do not contribute to waste, these and other lean principles stand a good chance of finally bringing the help desk monster to heel.

These are all great examples of lean in the IT world, but it starts with transforming the culture to think differently. We can use the great tools and a great framework, but this approach starts with the organization's ability to adapt and change. It's a long journey, and once you get into it, this journey will never stop to improve continuously.

Where are you and your organization on the lean journey?

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