What do principles established to optimize the automobile manufacturing process have to do with IT? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lean principles, first developed at Toyota in the middle of the 20th century, focus on maximizing customer value while minimizing waste. Their application is not limited to the production of goods, however. Lean principles can also be applied to services. Cayce Will, director, IT, Michigan Technological University, shared his thoughts on how these efficiency-boosting standards can improve how IT departments, and businesses, function.
In a recent LinkedIn article, Will promoted the idea of Lean IT. “It’s basically the amalgamation of IT and Lean practices,” he remarked. “I merged those two because IT is full of procedures, which is ripe for Lean practices. We think we know the right way to do something, but invariably, there are better ways that we can find, and using Lean principles, we can find them.”
Lean thinking shifts the focus from optimizing separate factors such as technology, assets and vertical departments to making sure that the flow of products and services through the entire value stream is optimized. Will believes Lean principles can make IT departments, and in turn, entire businesses more efficient by streamlining processes and eliminating unnecessary procedures. He pointed out that Lean principles are used in many other industries, and it is high time they be applied to IT.
Will explained how he defines Lean IT. “Lean IT is about allowing workers to be creative with problem solving techniques,” he stated. “This is geared towards businesses who should be interested in improving customer service.” His ideas about Lean IT are a reaction to what he sees as a set of static approaches that are inefficient and lead to stagnation. “When you lock someone into a methodology, it only works in the short term,” Will asserted.
Adopting Lean principles at IT departments might be easier said than done, Will acknowledged. “There’s a lack of support from management,” he commented. “You need good management support to implement these practices, because on the surface, it looks like a distraction, but in reality, it helps them do every aspect of their job better. IT professionals aren’t empowered to make these changes, they aren’t allowed to be creative. You need management to say, ‘Let’s try to do this differently.’”
What can IT departments interested in implementing Lean principles do to convince members of the C-suite that it is a good move for the rest of the firm? Will recommended offering them concrete evidence that Lean principles work. “Effectively engage them,” he advised. “Have a small testing cycle as an example.” Will also counseled patience. “Not everyone is ready to improve IT,” he warned. “It takes a change in mindset for any worker.” Moreover, attempting to implement Lean principles takes courage. “You have to be brave to try this out,” Will noted.
He foresees that it will take time for Lean IT to become widely accepted. “There will be slow adoption of Lean IT,” he predicted. However, those who do not implement Lean IT practices will suffer negative consequences. “We don’t know what technology will be like in ten years,” Will said. “If you’re not practicing IT in a creative way that allows you to attack problems, you’re an IT dinosaur. If you’re not using Lean, you’re doing it the hard way.”