by Stephanie Overby

Learning to Love Lean IT

Apr 30, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

Eliminating waste doesn't just apply to scrap metal.

When Pat Quinn became VP of information systems and technology at Acuity Brands Lighting two years ago, his team gave him a welcome gift: a company-branded clock, set to count down a period of 18 months—the longest any of his predecessors had lasted. The lighting division of $2.4 billion Acuity Brands had gone through five IT leaders in as many years before Quinn.

Quinn now views the gag gift as a trophy. And he credits his relative longevity to IT’s embrace of lean manufacturing principles.

In 2004, Acuity Brands got a new CEO and a new mandate: Get lean. The CEO sought the benefits some manufacturers had gleaned from embracing lean principles—business performance improvement tools introduced by Henry Ford and perfected by Toyota, designed to improve quality, cost and delivery in manufacturing operations.

Quinn was charged with providing systems to enable the manufacturing changes. But as he learned more about lean tools and techniques for cutting waste and enabling continuous im­provement, he saw that IT could benefit from them as well. “Eliminating waste doesn’t just apply to scrap metal. It can mean eliminating the waste of intellectual property or human resources or anything else,” he says.

The IT team was skeptical. “They could see how lean was valuable for everybody else, for manufacturing or finance or anyone they viewed as transactional,” says Quinn. “But IT saw itself as creative and worried that lean would suppress that creativity.” Quinn understood. “We’re not creating widgets,” he told his employees. “But when you create, for example, a software product, there’s still tremendous waste. And creating a process framework doesn’t have to depress creativity.”

IT began conducting “Kaizen events” —intensive five-day affairs aimed at bursts of business process improvement—that shape lean transformations. The IT team of 150 began to see potential efficiency and quality improvements in areas from software development to network management. Results have ranged from finally weaning the company off IBM mainframes in use for 20 years to transitioning corporate headquarters (and 175 call center agents and 25 apps) to VoIP in less than two months.

The transition has required big changes in thinking. One lean event revealed that application development could be greatly improved with pair programming—multiple programmers working together on code. “I thought, there’s no way that’s going to work,” says Quinn, a former programmer himself. “But I was completely wrong.”

Today, the continuous improvement piece requires heavy training and more involvement by Quinn than he anticipated. “Two years in, we’re at a pretty good point in the journey,” he says. “There’s no way we’re there yet. But if you ask someone from Toyota, where they’re 40 years into the journey, I don’t think they see an end in sight either.”