Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How IT Can Stay Relevant Utilizing Lean Principles

Today in business it's not uncommon to see a diverging opinion of the value information technology (IT) delivers. Often the gap is fueled because IT executives have unique sets of challenges and complexities which cause them to focus on different deliverables from that which their business counterparts expect.  Most IT leaders evolved through the traditional IT ecosystem and haven't gained the business experience which their peers have in focusing on value delivery.  This chasm is commonly the cause of the movement for IT leaders to get a "seat at the table" or "more in tune with the business." I completely understand this effort but i've always been a bit humored at the effort to have an executive work towards just getting a seat at the leadership table.  Unfortunately it's very common in technology to keep the leader hidden in the closet keeping everything running.  Regardless, IT is more relevant than ever but must adapt it's value position or it will find SAAS providers invading their domain.

Over the last 10 years there has been a positive movement within IT organizations to focus on value delivery (agile, kanban, lean).  Consistently we hear of two types of IT, firefighting IT and what I will call innovative IT.   Firefighting IT is waking up daily mapping the fires they will fight just to keep the lights on or the business running.  What a horrid way to live your life.  Innovative IT on the contrary positions themselves as a value add to their business peers by continually finding ways to innovate.  Or
in other words an IT organization that strives to continually improve and deliver value to the organization.  Firefighters live the IT of the 90's.  Often it's not always their fault they spend time keeping sins of the past running.  Old technology which requires life support is a drain on innovation. Firefighters are so busy keeping the plates spinning they never have time to say yes to new projects.  The majority of IT groups find themselves in this second group and socializes themselves as a cost center.  Firefights justify their value through concepts such as Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) or at best a cost benefit analysis.

Innovative IT sees themselves as part of their business and always looking for opportunities to improve their value delivery through seamless integration within the business value streams. This effort requires effective management systems that prioritize work and align daily activities with those goals and objectives that are most important to the organization. The focus of management is to create stable processes and standardized work which consistently deliver value to the customer.  To be sustainable it must be simple to understand and execute, providing guidance while not getting in the way. It cannot be too controlling or rigid; otherwise, it will suppress creativity and learning, hindering improvement and innovation.  Wow, you say.  Great to think that way but impossible to do.  Not true, you can do this and you can make your mark but utilizing lean concepts.

Steve Bell and Mike Orzen in their book Lean IT elegantly define this concepts by saying "Lean IT engages people, using a framework of Lean principles, systems, and tools, to integrate, align, and synchronize the IT organization with the business to provide quality information and effective information systems, enabling and sustaining the continuous improvement and innovation of processes. Lean IT has two aspects: outward facing, supporting the continuous improvement of business processes, and inward-facing, improving the performance of IT processes and services." Bell, Steven C. (2012-01-04). Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation

This is a hard balance, IT organizations are always faced with threats from outside and inside.  They have to consistently protect themselves from risks that can literally produce threats to their organizational livelihood (think Target).  Additionally SAAS  based tools such as have created scenerios where IT may be defending its existance from providers who can continually deliver cheaper and better (For more on this).  Finally, IT groups have developed a complexity about them that makes it hard to manage let alone innovate.   These challenges are not lost on most IT executives.  In an effort to deliver software faster (faster value delivery)  agile has become an industry in its own.  Although agile is an exceptionally valuable tool it tends to reside more in the activities in the value stream and less a responsibility of leadership (this is open for debate but for this discussion I will leave it alone).
When new leaders or managers come along and try to innovate they are often countered with comments such as "This is the way we've always done it." or "Our business is different."  The pace of change in IT is exponential relative to the business change so not only must IT provide service today.  They must support the legacy of yesterday while planning for tomorrow.  Additionally they are akin to rebuilding the jet while in flight every time they plan to initiate a new technology or process.  It is no question why IT and their business partners can be misaligned.  Based on these constraints there is not a better group to utilize lean principles then IT.  

Lean IT enables a simplified, visible track for business process change throughout the organization, focused on delivering value to the customer. Lean IT is identified through (PPT)

  1. People - Only through people do we (working in cross-functional teams) identify the problems and their root causes, which are often found in the process itself and not the technology.
  2. Process - When the process is improved (and often simplified), the people may find that the supporting systems can also be streamlined or removed altogether. And when system changes are required to support the process improvement, the future state of the process (defined by the team) helps to articulate system requirements, while the team guides their design, selection, development, implementation, maintenance, and support.
  3. Technology - To focus of your team is through IT but it can only be done first through your people and your processes. 
The focus of Lean IT as described above will need to be your lighthouse constantly.  PPT can never take a back seat to the perceived threat of the day.   There are countless books and consultants who can show you the tools to create a lean framework.  Be warned the tools don't maintain your journey towards lean IT.  Again Steve Bell says "You must create a system of lean management which in turn shifts your culture.  A cultural shift will support long term sustainability towards lean.  Introducing Lean
management and information systems requires discipline, time and reflection. Lean principles are even more difficult to embrace, yet they eventually come to influence behavior throughout the enterprise. Values and principles must have time to become internalized within the unique culture of each organization. Nonetheless, it is difficult to begin with values and principles alone, because they are intangible. In order to achieve a sufficient escape velocity and trajectory, an organization should launch with a focus on problem-solving tools, then bounce off the atmosphere established by successful pilot projects , giving the organization time, momentum, and confidence to develop sustaining systems and principles.  Bell, Steven C. (2012-01-04). Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation

Look for more on this subject on the essential systems required for a lean IT transformation.  Please let me know your experience and if you are looking for a great resource of information please take the time to read Lean IT.  

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