8 reasons Lean IT now really matters to enterprises

'The idea of planning a year in advance is absolute nonsense, and we all know it.'
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

Lean IT helps address some of the scaling issues organizations are having with Agile. 

Photo: HubSpot

That's one of the key takeaways outlined by Steve Bell, Lean IT guru and co-author of Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation, who keynoted a recent lean confab in Paris.

Agile is a beautiful thing, encouraging that the walls between developers and users be torn down and that software be something everyone has a hand in designing and can be proud of. But as Stephen Younge pointed out here at this site a couple months back, Agile doesn't scale well beyond small teams in small settings, and it is difficult to make it work in larger organizations.

Bell is bringing fresh thinking to the problem from the "Lean Startup" perspective, suggesting that Agile is scalable. Here are Bell's eight reflections on how Lean IT is helping the enterprise:

1) Technology has the potential to play a transformative role in every product, service and industry. "Everyone is looking at IT suddenly, because it's disrupt or be disrupted," says Bell. "And the enabling factor is most cases is our capability to turn IT." He cautions, however, that IT needs to "let go" of its technology-centered thinking and focus on the customer. "We're so used to thinking about what we can do with this technology, this asset that we have, and we forget to ask what does the customer want."

2)  Deliberate innovation is becoming necessary for survival. It's time to make innovation part of everyday business, not just a one-off effort that occurs in the R&D department or development shop. Consider this, Bell asks: "If someone, anyone, anywhere in your company, including your suppliers and customers has an idea, what can they do with it? What are supposed to do? Send an email? Have a phone call? Call a meeting?"

3) Uncertainty can be your friend or enemy. Don't try to control it with governance, budgeting planning or portfolio management. "The idea of planning a year in advance is absolute nonsense, and we all know it," says Bell. "It crushes innovation." IT leaders need to strike a balance between good governance and nurturing purpose-driven teams," he adds, while noting that the situation will be different for every organization.

4) The key challenge facing Agile today is how to scale the enterprise. "Where Agile breaks down, often, is when you try to do the long big waterfall projects in rapid iterations, because there are more dependencies," Bell points out. "Things get bigger. I’m not saying they’re aren’t organizations that aren’t scaling Agile, but there are not as many as you think. They are all struggling with it." Bell notes that many Agile thought leaders are focusing on the challenge, and the principles incorporated in Lean methodologies help address the scalability challenges of Agile. Lean methodologies encourage a highly integrated approach in the way IT interacts with the business, reaching beyond simple "alignment" and focusing on a partnership with the business to continuously improve and innovate business processes and management systems.

5) ERP is the elephant in the room, and it's not going away. "If ERP can become Agile, promote standardized work, reduce information waste and errors, and enable data-driven decision-making, can it add value to a lean enterprise?" Bell asks, adding, "If ERP can't do these things,  can it be a lean enterprise?  Or will it just be a really big anchor dragging behind the ship forever?" Bell believes there is "a big future in rethinking ERP." However, "the big consulting firms are not going to like it. Because it means empowering the companies to break it down into small chunks, manage and prioritize the backlog, manage change, and drive out complexity, and take control. Because most enterprises are not in control."

6) Analytics is a critical skill that must be developed intentionally. "There are people who dream in color, and those that dream in black and white, and those that dream in heat maps," says Bell. "Those people who truly dream and think in analytics are a rare breed. If you have one that is that way naturally, you have a valuable thing.  In the absence of those, any hack with Excel and a pivot table and some pieces of eye candy can fake it and you’ll never know it." He cautions that "the good analytics people are getting sucked into the big data firms, which are just cashing in." Real data-driven decision making "is a powerful thing  especially when you can visualize it, and understand it, and draw conclusions."

7) Everyone takes an ownership stake in a Lean program. While many organizations are doing a good job in grasping most of the principles of Lean: Value, flow, pull and perfection, many miss the "value stream" aspect of it. "If you miss the notion of value streams, gains will not persist because nobody knows the end to end. Who's responsible?" Bell asks. Every stakeholder should be involved in this process, because IT is not one monolithic structure -- rather, it has many "fractals."

8) Prioritize all IT activities and investments according to long-term break-through goals, and abolish “dark matter.” Bell observes how scientists are now aware that half of the matter of the universe does not reflect any light, and is essentially dark matter. "We have that situation in IT too," he adds. "Half of the demand that comes through every day and half of the work we do every day is dark matter. It's there, it has gravitational pull, it consumes capacity. It's just not visible." Abolishing the dark matter means focusing on a few vital priorities, and building trust across the organization through Lean methodologies. Ultimately, Bell says, setting priorities based on Lean values -- continuous improvement, transparency, and partnerships with the business -- will begin to supplant political motivations for IT projects.

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