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Is Lean IT Necessary to Get IT on Track, or is it Something Else?

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Joe McKendrick: Lately, there's been talk of instituting "Lean IT" principles, which promote more automation and waste reduction in software development and maintenance. Is Lean IT necessary to get IT on track, or is it another buzzphrase for efforts we're already doing -- such as Agile development, SOA, BPM, and virtualization?

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  • There is no single silver bullet solution or strategy for shaping up IT. Lean happens to be a methodology where you constantly measure and measure and measure to root out waste as part of a process of continuous improvement. No hidden brain surgery there. But it requires grass roots acceptance, you don't do lean from top down. As such it may not be the answer for organizations where the prevailing philosophy is "just do it."

  • Depending on how one defines "lean".

    If by lean we mean cutting down the number of human resources I'd have to say that, usually, automation will not drive IT organization to become "leaner". It just allows them to shift there human resources to some better/more important tasks. In cases where enterprises use outsource partners, automation may actually cause reduction in human resources, but just because it is "easier" to part ways with such personnel.

    What automation should provide is mainly improved quality and higher production. Now if "Lean" means that IT organization is optimizing the use of their human resource, than yes.

    As for, Are enterprises already doing it today?, i.e. strive for automation, I have to say that not enough. Not just because they don't want to, but mainly because organizational structure, political gains and budget control issues that prevent them from doing it faster.

  • Thinking along Tony's lines, with measure, measure, measure... IT should be one of the most measurable of disciplines when it comes to the cost of assets and the raw performance of technology. The potential problem is likely to come from not having metrics that also acknowledge the value to the customer of IT 'done right'.

    Toyota may measure the success of their processes by the quality of the cars that roll off the production line. How often does IT measure the success of their processes by the value to the customer (the business), rather than the reduction of cost of servers, or the number of keyboards replaced after coffee spillage? SLAs need to get closer to the level of business value, not Exchange server uptime.

    Its great if IT can cut out the obvious waste so they can do more with less. They also need to be given incentives to remember that their customer is most important in all of this. Lost productivity across the business due to the wasteful practices associated with poor IT probably costs more than whatever IT could do to fix it.

    And if IT can't get their head around how to do stuff right, or better, at lower cost, then consider outsourcing the worst offending areas with SaaS. It will at a minimum be cheaper and one less headache for overstretched IT.

  • Lean IT might not be a buzzword yet and I dont think it will ever get there. IT has always been about innovation and the current IT marketplace definitely lacks it. The consolidation of people in the big outsourcers and the consolidation of technology purchasing for the big vendors has dramatically affected the innovation in the marketplace.

    But as such all such trends have a tendency to go through a cycle and that is bound to happen again. The frustration levels are high enough among large buyers of the big 5 software vendors and big 5 consulting houses that something will give.

    Lean is not the way to go, innovation is. But if you are not innovating, you might as well be Lean and non-innovative.

  • For IT projects to succeed, they must by definition be 'lean' without being 'cheap'. Ultimately organizations have adopted a far more pragmatic approach to IT projects in the past years where they need to see a benefit in terms of ROI or improved governance of their organization as a result of an IT project. In the past, many companies bought technology and then wondered what they could do with it. I think the difference between 'lean' and 'cheap' is easy to identify in that lean will normally result in implementations that can provide value for many years and can be built upon and improved.

  • A few points of clarification:

    • The "Lean" in Lean IT refers to the well known production management philosophy designed to maximize customer value and eliminate non-productive waste. While the dictionary definition of Lean offers positives and negatives in considering Lean, it is mostly a diversion from the real thing, which is based on five clear principles. The Wikipedia Lean IT page provides details.

    • There are two areas of Lean application within IT: dev and ops. Interestingly, app dev has been faster on the lean uptake than has operations, perhaps because Lean is consistent with the now ascendant Agile dev methodology. However, Lean is a more natural fit in Ops, given Lean's origins in production management.

    • Lean has wrought tremendous improvement in everything from luxury cars (Lexus), to emergency rooms (more than half of American hospitals are implementing Lean), to restaurants (Starbucks). As IT increasingly provides the mechanism of front-line business through customer and supplier facing systems, it makes sense that it would adopt the de facto standard for world class production management.

    • Lean is hardly in conflict with virtualization, SOA, cloud or any other technical trend. Rather, Lean offers a management paradigm that provides coherence to executive thinking about how to wring maximum value from technical developments, and thus aid innovation.

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