Transformation, Behavior, Sequence, and Adaptive Lean IT Systems – Part 1

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Updated article which recently appeared in the October 2015 edition of the Lean Management Journal

Transformation is today’s buzzword. It seems everyone in the lean community is talking about transformation. This makes sense given that we’ve spent the past several decades attempting to understand, copy, and adapt the improvement tools of Deming, Ohno, Shingo, and others and getting mixed results. Today we have only a handful of companies we might describe as Lean Enterprises and Toyota remains as the undisputed archetype. So what is transformation and why are so many companies pursuing it? Transformation is often described using words such as radical change, metamorphosis, revolution, and overhaul. Perhaps the most important aspect of a true transformation is that it is irreversible. This is the characteristic of lean transformation that has eluded most organizations. Granted, they have trained their people in the tools and core concepts, experienced process improvements through kaizen, made changes to the physical environment, introduced lean management systems, and have realized measureable results.

TRANSFORMATION IS DIFFICULT TO SUSTAIN – THE PUNISHMENT OF SISYPHUS

But what many organizations discover is that the momentum and energy required to keep their transformation going is being provided by a small group of people (usually the Process Improvement team, a cadre of lean coaches, or a charismatic lean champion). If they stop leading the charge, improvement work and the underlying transformation immediately begin to taper off. It’s as if organizational momentum is a large stone that needs to be constantly pushed up hill – if we stop pushing, it quickly rolls back down! This reminds me of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was punished for being deceitful by being forced to carry a huge boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down, for all of eternity. Many organizations seem to be stuff in a similar loop!

LEAN IT IS ESSENTIAL

Delivering value to the customer is a common objective of practically every organization in existence. In order to accomplish this, it is essential to deliver services, products, and information which meets customer-defined quality, at a price they are willing to pay, and at a pace that matches customer demand. With the advent of the Internet, smartphones, and unprecedented access to information, customer expectations of quality, value, variety, convenience, and delivery have been increasing rapidly and there is no end in site. In order to meet customer expectations, today’s business climate is categorically reliant on the flow of information. Modern-day business process improvement, a collection of principles, systems, and tools aimed at creating a culture of continuous process improvement has evolved over the past 100 years or so. Most recently, we have been witnessing an explosion of improvement methodologies in the Information and Technology space. This comes as no surprise given our insatiable need for the information we require to make timely, informed decisions in response to ever-increasing customer expectations.

In the 1980’s, the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) emerged as a set of standard practices for IT which focused on aligning IT services with the needs of business (a novel idea at the time). ITIL has gone through several iterations and evolved to include a continuous service improvement component that embraces many of the tenets of lean thinking. Since then, we have seen the further application of lean in IT including Agile/Scrum, Kanban, Continuous Delivery, Lean Startup, DevOps, and Lean/ Agile Project Management.

I refer to this entire body of IT performance improvement as lean IT. Lean IT is the application of lean through to Information, Communication, and Technology. It’s a management system made up of two key pillars: continuous process improvement and respect for people. Lean IT is ultimately a learning system using a structured and disciplined approach to solving problems and pursuing opportunities. Lean IT focuses on engaging IT people to methodically improve IT processes in partnership with the Business to deliver more value to end users and enable the Business to deliver more value to end customers. This includes getting out on a regular basis to better understand the challenges and value equations of end users and see how information and technology are really being used. Lean IT is about engaging people, improving core business processes, and leveraging technology to enable the entire organization to accomplish more, create more, and achieve more with the least effort required.

In the next installment of this post, we’ll explore the Lean IT Diamond and that fact, although transformation is extremely difficult, it is not impossible.