Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lean Brings Value to IT Operations

Lean practices are becoming increasingly integral with traditional business practices. Lean provides a way for companies to increase value, meaning that a company's clients are willing to pay for a greater percentage of that company's activities, increasing their bottom line.

At its heart, Lean provides an avenue for businesses to reduce waste. Waste is simply work which does not add value to an organization’s service or product. The reduction of waste can result in the recognition of tangible results such as lower transportation costs, greater individual productivity or reduced spending on inventory storage.

With documented, real-world results, it's no wonder that Lean has taken hold throughout modern business management. However, the use of Lean as a management tool is noticeably absent in one area: IT operations. I'm not pointing the finger at these teams of intelligent, motivated people. After working to bring the value of Lean to IT operations for the last decade, I understand their unique difficulties.

Even in companies that embrace Lean practices in IT development, the operations side of the house generally finds Lean to be a foreign topic. Understanding the resistance to Lean can be better understood when one understands the basic nature of IT operations as an interrupt-driven entity.

Lean requires established processes as guidance but many IT operations teams struggle to quantify this operational work. We fit occasional improvements in between putting out fires. We don't always have defined processes, established metrics, or a strong understanding of how individuals on the team accomplish their responsibilities as part of the whole. Even shops with firm frameworks, like ITIL or MOF, often display gaps in process mapping.

A good example of an IT operations group not understanding its own processes came to me from Niel Nickolaisen, a highly respected IT turn-around CIO and proponent of Lean IT. He was talking with an IT operations group about their process for moving changes into production.

They had two processes: the normal process and the emergency process. The normal was long, complex, and bureaucratic. The emergency process was simple and straightforward. So, everyone made sure that their changes were an emergency so that they could follow the simple, straightforward process. I asked them how they had determined the few steps in the emergency process. They said that they had analyzed the normal process and identified the essential process steps and included those in the emergency process. I told them to make the emergency process the only process. The only difference between normal and emergency should be timing. The proposed changes that follow the normal process are reviewed once a week. The emergency changes require gathering the reviewers RIGHT NOW to review the proposed change. Otherwise they are identical. And, since they both only include the essential process steps, there is no reason to create an emergency to bypass process complexity.

The value of creating a Lean process for this team seems obvious, in retrospect, but the waste created by the added complexity of the normal process existed for years until the process was identified and refined. Add up a few of these "obvious" process improvements, examine the resulting waste, and it becomes apparent that there is great potential for bringing the value of Lean to IT operations.

Here’s how you can start thinking about Lean in your IT operations. Today, familiarize yourself with Lean and its uses within IT. Use a mind map tool to fully understand your organization’s work, the number of services it delivers, and where you are putting your collective effort.

Next month, identify a target process from the mind map and value stream that process. This will allow you to begin to organize the foundations for Lean. With your identified process you can start a Lean pilot in your operations group.

Next year, begin to expand its application and the breadth of tools being deployed, including Agile, Self-Service, etc. Based on your early experiences with applying Lean, your organization will begin to see additional process where you can direct your Lean focus.

Jen Browne and Patrick Phillips

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