Eight steps to achieve 'lean IT'

Can IT be systematically implemented and managed "simpler, faster, better, and cheaper"? Yes, say the authors of a new lean IT primer.

From the 1980s on, "lean" manufacturing helped tighten up the way many businesses operated, helping them to survive -- and eventually even thrive -- amidst the onslaught from more efficient and quality-driven overseas competition. Lean, as successfully applied to manufacturing, means doing things “simpler, faster, better, and cheaper.”

Can IT be systematically implemented and managed simpler, faster, better, and cheaper?  Our system for managing enterprise IT is bloated and broken. Millions of dollars are wasted every year on technologies and projects that either end up not being used, or render business processes more complicated than they were before.

Why can't the same lessons learned from the manufacturing sector be applied to enterprise IT management across all industries?

Steve Bell and Michael Orzen, in their latest book, Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation, say yes, it's high time the lessons of lean manufacturing are applied to IT management. And the benefits will extend far beyond lower costs for software development. It's about getting closer to the customer. As they point out: "Lean IT is much more than just a series of tools and practices; it is a deep behavioral and cultural transformation that encourages everyone in the organization to think differently about the role of quality information in the creation and delivery of value to the customer."

Here is their advice for moving to lean IT:

1) Start with the IT organization's own operations: "A progressive IT organization can indeed initiate its own inwardly facing lean transformation, even though the overall enterprise has not made the commitment." Localized benefits IT may see include lean software development and Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

2) Establish a sense of urgency: Often called a "burning platform," proponents need to establish "a compelling argument that the organization cannot afford not to change in a fundamental way."

3) Build a lean leadership team: "identify change agents that will become your first wave of lean leaders... make sure IT associates are well represented here.... Gather this team regularly to share their experiences."

4) Create a basic toolkit: "Start with the basics: A3 thinking [employing a one to two-page flowchart for problem solving], value stream mapping [analyzing the flow of product and information to the customer], 5S [sort, straighten, sweep, standardize, sustain], problem solving and decision making, visual management, standardized work, metrics, communications, experiential learning."

5) Launch pilot projects for quick wins: "Choose meaningful problems whose success is achievable; don't tackle the hardest problems first."

6) Go enterprise-wide: Extend the effort through Websites, virtual and physical libraries, a knowledge base, collaboration and knowledge-sharing tools, education and training tools.

7) Measure results and assess understanding and buy-in: "Measuring and openly communicating observations, trends, and results sends a clear message that the lean transformation is a strategic priority."

8) Consolidate gains and build momentum: "Communicate successes, failures and lessons learned openly to establish trust and build support."

As Bell and Orzen put it, lean IT is more than simply imposing new processes on an already stressed operation. More importantly, it's about having IT managers and professionals alike take a step back and reevaluate their mission and roles. "Lean thinking helps everyone in the IT organization demonstrate leadership and develop a laserlike focus -- inwardly on personal, as well as operational excellence, and outwardly to the continuous improvement of business processes -- eliminating waste and delivering value to every customer."