In the 1970s and \u201980s, IT was the recognized driver of business change, albeit under the moniker \u201cdata processing,\u201d followed by \u201cmanagement information systems,\u201d followed by \u201cinformation systems.\u201d\n\nHaving automated the daylights out of general accounting, IT\u2019s programmers and their friendly supplicants \u2014 business managers under constant pressure to cut costs \u2014 attacked business processes with glee to automate the daylights out of them.\n\nThe fun lasted until Joseph Juran invented the so-called \u201cinternal customer\u201d and IT\u2019s leadership role in helping the enterprise and everyone in it be more effective evaporated.\n\nInstead, IT, in its role as \u201csupplier,\u201d sent out its business analyst emissaries to find out what these internal customers wanted from the products they were buying from IT.\n\nThat\u2019s when we all fell headlong into perdition.\n\nHear me out: Business analysts in old-school, industrial-age, internal-customer-focused IT organizations asked business managers what their requirements were \u2014 what, that is, they needed an application to do.\n\nOld-school, industrial-age business managers tried hard to provide useful answers, even though to their ears the question sounded a lot like \u201cExplain the roles of dark matter and dark energy in keeping the universe from flying apart.\u201d\n\nYou can see the problem: Business managers weren\u2019t supposed to be experts in what software can do. The question they wanted to answer, if only the business analyst would have asked it, was, \u201cHow do you want your part of the business to run differently and better?\u201d followed by \u201cWould you like some help figuring that out?\u201d\n\nIT\u2019s failure to ask the right questions led to its sad transition from business change leader to the dispiriting supplier-to-internal-customer perspective that continues to distort our industry.\n\nIt also led to the rise of business process optimization methodologies that promised business managers a route to making their part of the business run differently and better \u2014 without having to involve IT.\n\nSure, business managers, encouraged by business process optimization \u201cbelts\u201d and supported by a bunch of spreadsheets that business users create when the IT they need isn\u2019t the IT they have, can improve the business processes they follow.\n\nBut not as well as they can improve them when IT is integrated into business process optimization.\n\nHow? Start with a clear picture of what the leading business process optimization methodologies are for. Then, and only then, can you improve on them.\n\nMaking sense of process optimization methodologies\n\nFour methodologies have come to dominate business process optimization efforts: Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, and Business Process Reengineering. To succeed in today\u2019s digital world, each should be second nature to IT\u2019s business analysts.\n\nRegrettably, however, these methodologies have become competing schools of thought (pick mine!) that evolved into religions (mine is better than yours!). It\u2019s about as sensible as arguing about which works better, a screwdriver, a pliers, a soldering iron, or a lathe.\n\nAnd you wonder why we consultants answer so many questions with, \u201cIt depends.\u201d\n\nWhen it comes to supporting business change, the \u201cit depends answer\u201d amounts to choosing the most suitable methodology, not the methodology the business analyst has the darkest belt in.\n\nBut on the other hand, the idea of having to earn belts of varying hue or their equivalent levels of expertise in several of these methodologies, just so you can choose the one that best fits a situation, might strike you as too intimidating to bother with. Picking one to use in all situations, and living with its limitations, is understandably tempting.\n\nIf adding to your belt collection isn\u2019t high on your priority list, here\u2019s what you need to know to limit your hold-your-pants-up apparel to suspenders, leaving the black belts to specialists you bring in for the job once you\u2019ve decided which methodology fits your situation best.\n\nBefore you can be in a position to choose, keep in mind the six dimensions of process optimization: Fixed cost, incremental cost, cycle time, throughput, quality, and excellence (for a refresher, take a quick scan at \u201cThe hard truth about IT process success.\u201d) You need to keep these center stage, because: You can only optimize around no more than three of them; the ones you choose have tradeoffs; and each methodology is designed to optimize different process dimensions.\n\nOne at a time:\n\nLean\n\nLean is Henry Ford by way of Toyota. Lean\u2019s core focus is shrinking waste, which, when you boil it all down, means reducing incremental cost. Lean can deliver other benefits as well, like improving quality and reducing cycle time, but only insofar as they don\u2019t impinge on waste reduction.\n\nLean\u2019s proponents will be quick to point out that it emphasizes continuous improvement, too. And rightly so. Just keep in mind that Lean equates improvement to less waste.\n\nIf waste is your problem, Lean is just the ticket for you.\n\nSix Sigma\n\nSix Sigma is the heir to total quality management. Its focus is reducing variance, which it accomplishes by identifying and addressing the root causes of variability \u2014 the reasons process outputs fail to be identical and don\u2019t meet the specifications.\n\nSix Sigma\u2019s focus, then, is on improving quality. To the extent defective outputs are discarded or funneled back into the process for correction, Six Sigma can, as a fringe benefit, reduce incremental cost, too.\n\nBut at its core, Six Sigma is your choice if quality is what matters most to you. Otherwise, you might find it disappointing.\n\nTheory of Constraints\n\nTheory of Constraints is the best process optimization methodology nobody\u2019s ever heard of. That\u2019s unfortunate.\n\nInvented by former physicist Eliyahu Goldratt, ToC assumes insufficient throughput is your problem, and that your process has bottlenecks (constraints) that limit it. Speed up or eliminate process bottlenecks and you increase throughput \u2014 capacity, that is \u2014 and reduce cycle time in the bargain.\n\nIf a symptom of a business process\u2019s shortcomings is that it can\u2019t keep up with demand, look to Theory of Constraints for help.\n\nAnd while it isn\u2019t part of ToC\u2019s official doctrine, you can apply the fundamental ToC loop \u2014 find bottleneck, fix bottleneck, rinse-and-repeat \u2014 to whichever process optimization goal you decide is most important. It doesn\u2019t have to be a capacity bottleneck.\n\nBusiness Process Reengineering\n\nMichael Hammer\u2019s and James Champy\u2019s Reengineering the Corporation was the book that focused business leaders on the importance of well-designed processes. The focal point for Business Process Reengineering is that the right place to start is a blank sheet of paper.\n\nSo where Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints look for the few bad process steps that cause the most mischief and go about fixing them so as to reduce waste, defects, or bottlenecks, BPR\u2019s primary impact seems to be maximizing consultant billing hours.\n\nWhich isn\u2019t entirely fair \u2014 there are situations where BPR is your only choice, for example when you\u2019re in-sourcing a previously outsourced business process.\n\nBut of the four dominant process optimization methodologies, BPR is the riskiest.\n\nTake the fifth\n\nWhile Lean, Six Sigma, ToC, and BPR are the major business process optimization methodologies of choice, IT groups that want to lead business process improvement have another alternative available to them: To offer the process flows built into commercial applications as the logical places to start.\n\nSoftware is an opinion. Commercial business applications are opinions about how a business process should flow. And while these opinions aren\u2019t always a great fit, they\u2019re usually a useful place to start.\n\nAnd while starting with an application\u2019s built-in processes makes both initial integration and ongoing maintenance easier for IT, this isn\u2019t just a replay of the old, tired, plain-vanilla versus chocolate-sprinkles argument that so often derails application implementations.\n\nThe problem with arguing about ice cream varieties was \u2026 is \u2026 that they\u2019re arguments about whether IT or \u201cthe business\u201d gets its way.\n\nBut as there\u2019s no such thing as an IT project, arguing about which flavor of software to use shouldn\u2019t be allowed.\n\nStarting with the built-in process? Yes, this is, as a happy fringe benefit, closer to accepting more vanilla-ish software for IT to maintain. But vanilla-ism isn\u2019t the point. Effective processes are the point.\n\nGoing with the application vendor\u2019s process design opinion has a business fringe benefit, too: Nobody has to design it.\n\nAnd a second: It\u2019s a workable place to start applying Lean, Six Sigma, or ToC if it isn\u2019t good enough out of the box.