Steve Bell, a lean IT coach, practitioner, and author is a trailblazer in the use of lean to improve information technology. Bell is the author of Run Grow Transform, Lean Enterprise Systems, and co-author of the Shingo Prize-winning Lean IT. He will present the one-day Lean IT workshop February 6, 2013, in San Francisco. Here Bell shares his thoughts on applying lean thinking to the IT function and outlines some key topics to be explored in the workshop
LEI: What is an example of a value stream in the context of business/IT integration?
Bell: We’ve read and heard about how IT groups often struggle to provide value to the organization. There seems to be a chronic condition that can be traced back to the troubles that business and IT have had in getting along. The problem with IT providing value to the business has to do with the whole idea of value streams.
What lean brings to this equation is the idea that we have to take a close look at what IT does in the context of the business. Very few companies have done that effectively. One of the industries that has utilized IT deeply and broadly is financial services. In fact, IT is really the shop floor of financial services operations.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, IT and its functions are highly siloed and highly specialized. As a result, they are viewed as not being responsive to the business. I think that’s the reason there is so much outsourcing and moving of IT operations to the cloud, because of this sense that the organization’s internal IT isn’t providing these functions successfully.
It’s essential for IT organizations to keep focused on the bigger picture– that software exists to add value to the business, so that business in turn can add value to the customer.
LEI: Where does lean come into play?
Bell: Lean thinking can play an important role by helping integrate IT into the business processes. In the software development process, for example, there is a lot of lean thinking going on that is helping enable the marriage of applications development and operations. Instead of software development just tossing its finished work over the wall, they should be looking at their role in the whole value stream. The notion of Development Operations, called Dev Ops, has emerged in the last couple of years, marrying operations and applications development. This is an important step in the maturity of lean thinking for IT.
LEI: What is information waste?
Bell: One of the foundations of lean thinking is being able to identify and eliminate waste. The classic seven different kinds of waste are not too difficult to spot in a physical environment, but in an office or in the IT environment, waste is often intangible and difficult to spot. Workshop attendees will receive a handout listing a number of examples of information waste, so that when they return to their company, they will be equipped to do a waste walk through their IT organization. But it’s the same in any business venue– wasteful behavior gets in the way of your ability to deliver value to the customer.
Unfortunately, in the last few years there has been so much emphasis on cutting costs that many companies have been cutting not just fat, but also cutting essential resources, weakening the capability of IT to serve the customer. This will continue to be a problem for many organizations until the CIO or someone else in a position of responsibility is able to differentiate between simply cutting cost and actually reducing waste.
In the IT organization in particular, it is very important to identify information waste. One obvious example is the plethora of unimportant stuff in your email inbox. Another is the poor quality of customer information in many business databases. Organizations can solve these problems by taking a systematic approach, implementing a data governance program that includes a master data management system to ensure data integrity.
Bell: In manufacturing and other industries, A3 provides a problem-solving discipline that a cross-functional team can use to assess a problem and get to a future state in which the problem is solved for the long term. Seasoned lean people realize you need to spend time identifying the underlying root causes of a problem.
But people in IT generally are overburdened with work. They are habituated to problem-solving on the fly. They are accustomed to putting out whatever fires come up, and then they get back to the work at hand. They rarely do root cause analysis outside the silo of IT, which is very short-sighted, since often chronic or recurring problems can be traced to communications or management problems outside their area. They need to take a lean approach by viewing the problem across the various functional silos, seeing it through to the end, and finally measuring the results. It’s a real cultural challenge to get IT folks to do this kind of problem-solving.
Another lean approach is to have an IT team that develops a backlog of problems to be solved. The team meets daily to track its progress against the targets it established for solving these problems.
LEI: Why is it important for IT to be a full business partner and to have an IT person involved in the business kaizen efforts?
Bell: You need someone who is accountable for the business value stream and someone from the application services side when you are doing strategy, modeling, and design for a particular business value stream. Unfortunately, too often we see business doing a kaizen with no IT person in the room. The changes they make require changes to be made to the information system, so as a result, they toss this over the wall to IT to make the necessary changes. Often the changes business people request, without the collaboration of IT, are unnecessary. In some cases, process changes are needed instead, or the necessary capabilities already exist in the system. In any case, lack of collaboration may create nonvalue-adding work on the part of IT, causing unnecessary complexity in the system.
IT should be a proactive participant in any business process improvement activities. Of course, the real fundamental problem is that IT organizations are chronically overburdened and reactive. In fact, when you observe their operations, they look very much like what we see in a non-lean factory. The IT organization needs to step up and improve its processes. And for IT to be a better business partner, the IT people need to be more available to the business.
LEI: Are there other benefits to attending the Lean IT workshop?
Bell: The LEI workshops attract a very intelligent, lean-aware crowd of people. I really like to get the attendees talking among each other and developing relationships with each other. We often get IT and business leadership, Agile/Scrum developers, ITIL operations practitioners, and business users in the same class, discussing problems and sharing their individual perspectives.
Let’s face it, lean, after all, is a community, and it’s that community of lean people that helps to promote the success of each organization’s lean efforts. The opportunity to meet and develop ongoing relationships with other people in the lean community is a big benefit for everyone who attends these workshops.
Learn how the Lean IT Workshop helps you leverage IT to deliver more value to customers. And read what your colleagues said about the session.
Steve Bell is a member of the Lean Enterprise Institute faculty and the founder of Lean IT Strategies, a lean leadership education and coaching firm, and Lean4NGO, a non-profit community dedicated to bringing Lean practice to humanitarian organizations.