Understanding Lean IT: 9 things you need to know

Don't get bogged down in all of the jargon of Lean IT. Here are explanations of the most important principles you need to grasp.
Written by Erin Carson, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: iStockphoto/oneblink-cj

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of Lean IT, it can be easy to get lost in jargon and vague descriptors of processes and goals. That's partly because it's not an entirely simple framework to explain, and its roots have been around for decades. Plenty of books have been written to attempt to explain and expand on it.

So, in case you're coming into this cold, here's a quick hit on some of the principles, big ideas, and trends linked to Lean IT. Start here, read a book later.

1. The big idea is getting rid of waste

One of the biggest ideas of Lean IT is eliminating waste, according to Steve Bell, the author of Lean IT and Run Grow Transform. In the latter, he starts off with a scenario in which a CIO talks about how his budget breaks down. He knows that about 10 percent of his budget is just waste. At a large company, 10 percent can amount to a huge sum of money that could be better reinvested elsewhere.

2. It's hard to innovate when most of your money goes toward keeping the lights on

On a related front, Bell also talked about how much money gets spent on day-to-day operations. It can average well over 50 percent. The money that's going towards doing the bare minimum is money that can't go toward innovation.

3. This all started with manufacturing

Lean IT has its roots in lean manufacturing, which also hinges on eliminating waste, but in the context of the manufacturing industry. You'll frequently run into references to the Toyota Production System, which has a lot in common with lean practices and precedes them.

4. There are five main principles

There are five core principles in Lean IT that have held up over about two decades.

* Value: The way to look at value here is in relation to the business's customers. Focus on the services that the business is passing along to the customer.

* Mapping value streams: A breakdown from Arizona State University defines value streams as the combination of effort, inputs, and results. "You have to look at the end-to-end value stream. You can't just take a portion of it. You can't just say we're going to get really good at developing high quality applications in two-week cycles, but then our old governance and command and control mindset means we can only release to the market every 6 months," Bell said.

* Flow: Flow is just about what it sounds like. Again, ASU steps in here to describe flow as what happens when a business makes sure that "work and value flow quickly and smoothly through the process." Part of the idea is that these processes continue regardless of "functional or job boundaries" that may arise.

* Pull: ASU describes a traditional setup where work gets pushed 'downstream' towards the customer. The problem with that is that if there's a chink somewhere in that process it can cause a backup with a few types of consequences, which ultimately amount to waste. With lean, those steps that are considered downstream set the rhythm. "Work is only done when a downstream step indicates it is ready to take on work," ASU describes.

* Seek perfection: "This is the notion of continuous improvement," Bell said. ASU defines it as a business defining what its vision for perfection is, with regard to its products and services and then lays out what the vision is for what the organization wants to accomplish, how they can do that, what they need to do that (and how long it will take), and what the benchmarkers are.

5. The overarching goal is to better align IT with the business

This a is an idea that gets bandied around a lot, inside and outside the context of Lean IT. But, Lean IT is one approach to improving a situation where the IT department's customer is the business, and the business's customer is, well, the customer, and problems arise because those goals don't match up -- the IT departments ends up being a section of the business that's not bringing in any money.

6. Businesses tend to struggle the most with identifying value streams

IT is complex. Bell described a situation, for example, where a large IT organization might have thousands of people, and millions of dollars in annual budget. Most of the budget is focused on keeping the lights on. But, they want to try new things. At the same time, they don't have much time to go back and fix or simplify what they've already done. The result is years or even decades of system tweaks which degrade the integrity of the system.

"A lot of big banks and other organizations are doing just that, but if you don't re-architect with the notion of value streams in mind -- which is 'We're in business to serve our customers. Whatever we do that adds value to our customers, we should keep doing, and whatever we don't...we need to find a way to get through those'," Bell said. The perspective must be looking at the IT organization as a series of connected value streams, and that will help clarify the end-to-end flow.

7. Businesses can also struggle with getting the culture of Lean IT right

"Lean IT is very cooperative, it's very team-oriented, it's very goal oriented versus plan oriented," said Gartner analyst Nathan Wilson. He also said this is an area where clients struggle. "The practices are pretty straightforward once you get people who are really dedicated to doing what's best for the business instead of what's best for their part of IT."

Also, culture is something that happens over time. "If you're looking for a long-term transformation, it's a journey of learning and coaching," Bell said.

8. They also tend to think about Lean IT in terms of 'implementation'

There's the propensity to think Lean IT works like this: "You bring in some outside resources, you do some consulting, you do some work and someday soon within six months to two years, you declare yourselves 'lean.' You plant a victory flag, everybody gets a coffee mug and the t-shirt and you're done," Bell said. It's doesn't work that way.

Sure, there are what Bell called "low-hanging fruit improvements" that an organization can realize early on, but the necessary thing is thinking about the long term and rewiring your organization as a learning culture.

9. Sometimes the outcomes are different from what businesses expect

Wilson said that the biggest difference he sees between the organizations that are thinking about doing Lean IT and the ones who are doing it comes down to expectations. The former think they're going to save money and move fast. The latter tend to talk in terms of the ability to provide business value, focus on the most important work, and improve the quality.

"We see our clients starting [focused on] one set of goals and what they achieve ends up being a different set. They're very happy with what they get, but it's a very different set than what they set out to find," Bell said.

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