Friday, March 25, 2011

What is a Lean IT Organization? Interview with Mike Orzen

We will be back to part 3 on our Leveraging Agile in Operation early next week.  This week I have the honor to post the first question of many from an interview with Mike Orzen.

It’s difficult to find lean practitioners who focus and coach IT organizations well.  The reasons are many which may be the impetus for another blog but I have been fortunate to meet a great Lean leader for IT and healthcare.  I felt an obligation to share his knowledge with you and hope you enjoy his insight in to this topic as much as I have in my leanings from him.   

I have had a great opportunity to read Mike’s book Lean IT and recommend this literature to you regardless of you experience with lean.   

Mike Orzen delivers a unique blend of lean, six sigma, IT and operations. He has been consulting and coaching for over 25 years to companies in IT, manufacturing, aerospace, high-tech, medical device, healthcare, casting, legal, logistics, apparel, and food processing. His experience includes systems design, application development, numerous ERP implementations, enterprise-wide process improvement, and large-scale roll out of lean enterprise initiatives for global companies.  Mike is on the faculty of the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches the LEI Lean IT workshop.

1.  Can you explain why IT has not seen a bigger movement in Lean, and what does it mean to be a Lean IT organization?

A Lean IT organization uses its information and information systems to enable the flow of value to its customers. IT systems are the connective tissue that coordinates most communication and execution of work throughout the value stream. A Lean IT organization applies the principles and tools of Lean to eliminate wasteful systems and processes to provide accurate and timely information to suppliers, employees, and customers. Above all, Lean IT organizations are comfortable with the inherent ambiguity of solving problems when solutions are not apparent.
In many organizations, IT is among the “last frontier” when it comes to applying Lean principles. Often we see Lean successfully applied to the shop floor in manufacturing environments and the front office (including HR, engineering, supply chain, and accounting) in both service and manufacturing companies, but IT is conspicuously missing from the Lean transformation. I after ask why and usually get one of three responses:
1)      IT is too busy, they have a multi-year backlog and don’t have the time to be pulled away to participate in improvement work.

2)      We don’t really see the need to bring IT staff into an improvement effort when we’re problem solving. We’ll tell them if we need a report or additional app functionality if and when the team makes that determination.

3)      IT staff are difficult to work with and best left with their heads down, coding software or deploying a new server!

These responses indicate a lack of understanding of the key role IT must play in effective process improvement. Although we all acknowledge that accurate information is essential to any business in creating value and flowing goods and services to the customer, we seem to think we can generate improvements with cross-functional teams that do not include IT associates. Let’s look at these responses one-by-one.
It’s true that, in many cases, IT does have a huge backlog which is only getting larger as a result of a) late delivery of projects and b) additional projects endlessly added the portfolio. Out of control IT backlogs are symptoms, not causes of conditions calling for improvement. By excluding IT from Lean improvements, we avoid the real issue (the root causes of the current condition). The fact that we view IT as being “too busy” to participate in Lean improvement is the best reason to involve them! Until we begin to move away from business as usually, we can only expect things to get worse: larger backlogs, more project overruns, and more frustration.
Having IT staff participate in Lean activities infuses Lean improvements with “systems thinking.” IT professionals are natural systems thinkers. Systems thinking is the ability to see the whole picture and not just a segment of the process. IT staff are well versed at seeing the entire flow of a transaction from data capture to final resolution (Seeing the Whole). They also understand the interaction of various elements of the information stream (hardware and software), the complexity of which can often require more than one IT associate to fully understand. Finally, when their skills are cultivated, IT professionals have a firm understanding of how changes within an information system impact the value stream and affect employees, customers, and suppliers.
The “geek nerd” is nothing more than a stereotype. The IT associates I work with in many diverse organizations including finance, logistics, healthcare and software, are well read, educated, thoughtful people. A key tenant in Lean is “respect for people.” We often mistakenly understand this to mean that employees are encouraged, treated fairly, given clear goals, and held to accountable for results. Actually, that’s not it at all. In Lean, respect for people is all about coaching people by challenging employees to solve problems; asking for deeper thinking, more data and facts, and more dialogue. This is experienced as uncomfortable and difficult work when employees (particularly in IT) just want to implement a solution!

IT associates are more than capable of responding to this kind of challenging work. They possess the aptitude for deep analysis and reflection that is required to make significant Lean improvements. All that is needed is a willingness to try. The first step is to make the time to involve IT in Lean activities. Lean IT is an untapped goldmine just waiting to be unearthed!


  1. It is an interesting point of view but i think there are 2 very important areas that i believe are missed are not given enough importantance
    Before IT work starts on any new initiative you need to know what the business problem is and what business goal is and that is where more focus needs to be placed if you want lean IT
    The second issue is information not hardware or software , if the focus becomes hardware or software the true focus and any chance of being lean is lost.
    JJB. CIO

    IT is for delivering information and the biggest partner in the is of Course the

  2. To be simpler, coders need to write correct code in less number of lines, use frugal apt comment lines,select as many sub-routines/packages as possible, understand the business requirements and design intent completely.Understanding of their module in the bigger system fit is essential.Test data & scripts should be available in whole and prior. do either peer review OR architecture/manager minimum documentation but not compromising completeness for brevity.Switch off applications,pc, servers when not in use.

  3. Well -that- certainly clears up the problem! Thank you Anonymous.

    May I respectfully suggest:
    1. reading Mary and Tom Poppendieck (any of their books will do)
    2. then hiring them (or a suitable alternative, a skilled Agile coach who focus is Lean practices),
    3. and then actually following through rather than offering the excuses offered above.

    Any organization that does that is at least in a position to comment on why lean does or doesn't wok for them.


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