The lean process improvement principles that have driven transformational change in areas such as manufacturing, accounting and supply chain management are making big waves in yet another sector: information technology.
Today, many companies are actively seeking the benefits of “lean IT,” seeking to drive out process waste and streamline workflow, turning to lean icons such as Toyota and Honda for inspiration. At The Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence, for example, an entire community has formed for IT leaders seeking to drive efficiency and effectiveness through lean practices.
The stakes are simple but high: When IT stops, the business stops, and when it flows, it positions the business for success. But the sector – with its complexity, cross-functional interdependencies and conflicting priorities – presents a “perfect storm” of distinctive obstacles for leaders. Moving forward with a transformation, particularly in IT, requires a clarity of purpose, an alignment of people, and a sharp focus on the processes that create value for customers.
Accomplishing all of these takes more than just a set of lean tools – it requires a shift in behavior, driven by leaders equipped to change a culture.
All transformations begin with a look at purpose. A shared purpose is essential to create and drive a common intention, alignment and commitment. Everyone in the IT organization (as well as the business) needs to be very clear on why we are in business, why we are transforming and where we are vs. where we need to be. Without a widely understood and collective purpose that people can clearly see within the context of their daily work, everyone is left on their own to identify what matters most and determine what they should do (or not do) about it.
The next component is people. While clearly a central ingredient in building a highly effective organization, people also are the source of the uncertainty, disengagement, mistrust and political gamesmanship that can plague a workplace. When we treat people with respect and create systems and processes that position them for success, we cultivate trust, engagement, teamwork and high levels of performance.
In the hands of our people are the processes that represent the work we do to fulfill the mission of our organization. When processes are undefined, unclear or not consistently followed, the effort required, the time it takes, the quality of the outcomes and the frustration of staff and customers all become highly unstable and inconsistent.
Too many organizations fail to step back and examine these elements of the bigger picture, which ultimately serves as the “True North” in the lean transformation process. Companies that have “pockets” of improvement – islands of lean in a sea of waste – often lack understanding around a shared purpose, for example.
To truly keep momentum moving, organizations need fearless leaders at the core of their process improvement teams. If they stop leading the charge, improvement work and the underlying transformation immediately begin to taper off. If they succeed, the possibilities are endless.