By Mike Orzen, CMA, CFPIM, PMP – Lean IT Coach

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 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 realised measureable results.

Transformation is really hard to sustain

 But what many organisations 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 organisational momentum is a large stone that needs to be constantly pushed up hill – if we stop pushing, it quickly rolls back down!Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 14.24.55 

Lean IT is essential

Delivering value to the customer is a common objective of practically every organisation 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 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 organisation to accomplish more, create more, and achieve more with the least effort required. 

Transforming IT is even more difficult, but not impossible

 Today, many companies actively seeking the benefits of lean IT and are embarked on a transformation in their IT group. They are often familiar with lean and/or Six Sigma and have had some success with process improvement in other areas of the business such as manufacturing, accounting, and supply chain.

However, the landscape of IT, the complexity and dynamics of technology, the interdependency of its functional silos, and conflicting priorities when working with the Business, all combine to create a perfect storm of distinctive obstacles.

There is a key relationship that exists in all organisations. When understood and appreciated, it can provide clarity and direction to a lean IT transformation.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 14.24.40

Let’s look at the components of the lean IT diamond and why it can be so helpful. At the top of the model, we begin with Purpose. A shared purpose is essential to create and drive a common intention, alignment, and commitment. Everyone in the IT organisation (as well as the Business) needs to very clear on why we are in business, why we are transforming, and where we are vs. where we need to be.

If this shared understanding is not in place, you can be certain to see different behaviours, erratic degrees of engagement, and the consequential mixed results Without an 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. If you have ever witnessed pockets of improvement (aka islands of lean), you can be assured there is a lack of understanding around shared purpose.

The next component is People. It may seem obvious that people are a central ingredient in building a highly effective organisation. What is not so obvious, or at least publically acknowledged, is that many work environments are abundant with uncertainty, disengagement, mistrust, apathy, fear, and political gamesmanship. In our first book, Lean IT Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation, I noted that people are often the only appreciating asset in an organisation. 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.

Process represents the work we do to create value for our customers, to collaborate with our partners (the Business, vendors, supply chain, and outside resources), and to ultimately fulfill the mission of our organisation. 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.

The final component of the lean IT diamond is Information and Technology. It is useful to think of these two elements as distinct yet highly interdependent. With respect to information, IT is the mechanism that transforms raw data into useful and actionable information. IT, when done well, is the connective nervous system that joins people with actionable information.

Concerning technology, IT is the enabler of the business – capturing, organising, and storing immense amounts of data, automating routine tasks, building transactional records, enforcing business process rules, managing secure access, all while providing work process functionality and visibility to all functional areas of the business.

The flow of complete, accurate, timely, and actionable information is a key determinant of the flow of customer value and organisational performance. When IT stops, the business stops. When IT flows, information flows and the Business is positioned for success (of course it takes more than just great IT).

The importance of behaviour

At the end of the day, all change comes down to altering our established patterns of behaviour. Anyone who has attempted to make a lifestyle change (such as quitting smoking or eating healthier) can attest to how difficult this is.

It is interesting to note that most transformations tend to focus on training people on the new ways of doing things. We assume that if people know about a new (presumable better) way of doing something, they will automatically adopt it as their regular way of acting. Nothing could be further than the truth. If knowing about a better behaviour caused people to change their actions and develop new habits, no one would be overweight, use tobacco products, or run on less than 6 hours of sleep!

We are all creatures of habit and become very comfortable with the way we’ve always done it, even when our routines become outdated, broken, and painfully frustrating. Why? Because it is really difficult to change the behaviour of others or even ourselves. This resistance to change is a universal condition that, unless addressed directly and openly, puts all transformation efforts at serious risk.

Make/Break, Cadence, & Predictability

There are three factors you need to know about to effectively address this issue: make/break, cadence, and predictability. So what does it take to make or break a habit? I have confirmed it requires 40 days of practicing a new behaviour before be can even begin to change old habits. At 90 days we have confirmed and strengthened the routine. At 120 days the new habit becomes deeply engrained as a part of our identity (how we see ourselves). At 1,000 days we have mastered the new behaviour. Here’s the secret: the days must be consecutive! That’s right – if you miss a day, any day, the next day is Day One and you start counting from the beginning. I have personally used this approach to successfully affect change at both organisational and personal levels and it works.

Why is this approach so effective? People like routine and predictability – we are hard-wired to repeat what has worked before and to be skeptical of anything outside the conventional pattern. Most people drive to work using the same route, walk through a grocery store selecting the same items, watch the same TV programs, and go to bed at the same time – you get the picture. By enforcing a new routine and deliberately changing our behaviour, we gradually provide the predictability and structure our human nature innately desires. When the changes make our work better, faster, less stressful, and prove to be more rewarding, that further reinforces the value of the routine and new habits begin to take deeper root.

As new work processes yield better results including more consistent quality, less rework, variability, and overburden, predictability of outcomes increases and we receive yet another dose of reinforcement – increased customer satisfaction!

The Key System – Problem Solving

An example may serve to clarify this approach to creating new habits. Let’s assume you have introduced lean problem solving to your IT group as part of your transformation. People have received training in basic lean concepts including PDCA, A3, and root cause analysis. The assumption is that once people understanding lean problem solving, they will use it in their daily work. This rarely happens. In most cases about 10% of your people will be self-starters and try to apply lean practices on their own. The vast majority of people attend the training and think, “That’s interesting…” and then go back to work using their normal ways of getting things done. They quickly fall back to their comfort zone, which excludes the ideas and tools shared in the training workshop.

Applying the make/break, cadence, and predictability concepts, we would include problem solving as an essential element of our daily team huddles and visual management system. On a daily basis, the team would be coached by responding to questions of inquiry designed to foster new ways of applying what was learned during the training on problem solving. The only way people learn lean is by doing lean!

The importance of work systems

In the previous example, team huddles and a visual management system were mentioned. These are both examples of work systems designed to encourage the specific behaviours we want to cultivate. There are many work systems that comprise a lean management system including problem solving, daily huddles, leader standard work, training, recognition, visual management, strategy deployment, measurement, and monthly performance reviews, just to name a few.

It is these work systems that impact people’s behaviour most significantly by emphasizing and reinforcing those actions we want to see everyday from everyone. Where many organisations get into trouble is in the sequence and timing of how and when to introduce these systems.

Sequence is critical

Over the past twenty-four years, I have tried many approaches and witnessed what works and what doesn’t. Here’s the bottom line: each organisation has its own culture, history, and work environment, so one size does not fit all. There is no standard deployment sequence or collection of work systems that apply universally. That said; there are some foundational concepts applicable to all organisations.

1) Start by establishing a clear purpose throughout the organisation. This is a prerequisite for success.

2) Acknowledge that the bedrock of lean is learning and that problem solving capability is the skill to cultivate if you are serious about transformation.

3) Strive to balance the two pillars of lean: continuous improvement and respect for people. Don’t make the common mistake of falling in love with tools of continuous improvement and ignoring respect for people.

4) Create a culture of accountability by building work systems that position your people to succeed, to learn, and to grow. This is true respect for people and promotes high levels of teamwork, engagement, accountability, and ultimately performance.

5) Work systems must be designed, built, maintained, and improved by the people doing the actual work. Outside support is fine, but the frontline people must do the work.

Adaptive Lean IT Systems 

Whether you are considering bringing lean IT to your organisation, currently applying it to IT operations, or determined to build a lasting transformation, awareness of the lean IT diamond and the importance of behaviour, work systems, and sequence will significantly increase your odds of success.

At the end of the day, lean IT is all about effectively responding to change by continuously improving adaptive systems. In order to be effective, IT must change its behaviour and functional capabilities in response to its environment and the needs of the Business. When IT reshapes systems and technology, the adaptive change is directly relevant to achieving the goals and objectives of the organisation.

Summary

For IT organisations to evolve to become more responsive to the changing needs of the Business while simultaneously maintaining the stability and security they are held responsible for, IT professionals need to understand and embrace the behaviours, as well as the thinking, of lean IT.