Why Lean IT Operations is Business Critical


In the modern enterprise, success is determined by an organization’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace — a concept known as business agility. Without the ability to deliver up-to-date, relevant information where it’s needed most, organizations are unable to respond to internal and external opportunities and threats as they appear.

Business agility is often constrained by the agility of an organization’s IT Operations, which builds and maintains the systems that deliver information. The unpredictable “firefighting” nature of IT Operations work makes it difficult for teams to maintain a consistent flow of value-adding work — work that would improve agility, and prevent fires from occurring in the first place. This catch-22 often causes discord between the IT organization and the business, rooted in a lack of visibility and understanding.

Lean for IT presents an opportunity to break down the walls between these two parts of the business. It creates a foundation for sustained IT operational excellence by improving visibility into the IT Operations organization, enabling better communication and faster delivery across the enterprise.

IT Operations and the Business: Speaking Different Languages

Aligning the needs of IT Operations with the business is critical to business success, but it often seems like the two parties are speaking different languages. In his book Lean IT, Mike Orzen outlines these conflicting priorities between the IT organization and the business: To the business, IT Operations is complex, fragmented, misdirected (focused on solving technical issues rather than business problems), slow-moving, and costly to change.

Meanwhile, IT Ops struggles to be heard and understood. Many of the problems IT Operations faces, it actually inherits: It’s often brought into the conversation after business and tactical decisions have already been made — which means they don’t have a voice at the table to affect positive, sustainable change.

Without support, direction, and understanding from the business, IT Operations cannot build and maintain a comprehensive, effective information system: From the IT Ops perspective, IT Operations is often forced to adopt broken systems, and has to develop unsustainable workarounds that only create more technical debt. IT Operations staff are often switched between projects, causing changeover costs, lost productivity, quality problems, frustration, and fatigue, which further exacerbates the fragmentation in the system.

The Role of Lean in IT Operations

In order for this misalignment to be mended, we must reframe the role of IT Operations — that’s where Lean for IT comes in. According to Orzen, these elements of a Lean management system are typically supported by IT shared services and present unique opportunities for IT Operations:

  • Communication
  • Knowledge management and collaboration
  • Performance measurement and business intelligence
  • Strategy deployment
  • Lean accounting

These shared services present an opportunity for a Lean IT organization to support and promote business process improvement across the organization. Here’s how: In a Lean enterprise, cross-functional teams work in partnership with IT to improve business processes, which in turn shifts IT’s contribution from one of supporter to driver of the development of innovative solutions.

In his book, Orzen explains how Lean IT organizations can improve collaboration across value streams by:

  • “Encouraging a systems approach to problem-solving
  • Lending an understanding of underlying information systems functions and interrelationships that are hidden from most users
  • Leveraging their position of being outside the silos to see how information flows from end to end, thereby being able to spot weaknesses better”

IT Operations, in particular, can play a critical role in creating Lean IT flow. Lean for IT thought leaders are calling for IT Operations to “act like a business”, positioning themselves as a service rather than a silo; the services they offer can range from help desk services to architecture and security, but should all be rooted in the goal of holistic process improvement.

If IT Operations can make the transition from silo to service provider, it can gain the seat at the table it needs to make sustainable improvements and improve business agility. The ITIL framework can provide the structure IT Operations needs to transform into a service organization.

ITIL: A Lean Approach to IT Services Management

ITIL, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a widely used IT service management framework that aligns closely with many Lean principles and practices. The fundamental value of ITIL is that it provides a Lean framework for change management, without which a Lean IT initiative may never get off the ground.

Continuous improvement, one of the pillars of Lean, is also at the core of ITIL. It’s implemented in multiple ways:

  • Using the scientific method, called PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act), for identifying, solving, and sustainably preventing problems allows IT Operations teams to systematically work through both break-fix and planned project work.
  • Standardized work methods reduce the complexity of work, because they help regulate changes and failures in the system as they occur, and allow for root-cause analysis to prevent the same failures from recurring.
  • The Lean concept of quality at the source reduces the cost of rework and compliance.

One of the most useful products of ITIL is the creation of a service catalog, which outlines the value-adding services that the IT organization provides to its customers (internal or external). This effective communication, measurement, and feedback allows for adaptation, innovation, and agility. IT’s customers can identify exactly which service they need to ask for — i.e., speak the IT language — and suggest new service offerings. Over time, using ITIL to implement Lean IT can help eliminate chronic instability, replaced by teamwork, dependability, and trust.

Lean IT Operations

Integrating Lean into IT Operations results in a more stable, reliable, and effective IT Operations system with higher morale and faster value delivery. Lean for IT encourages IT Operations to shift from a functional silo to a value-adding service provider. Using ITIL as a Lean framework, IT Operations teams can implement Lean in a way that promotes fast, predictable delivery.

Arming IT Operations with the ability to manage its workflow allows it to make smarter decisions about priority. It enables them to regain a seat at the table, and get involved in the process improvement efforts that enable them to offer more value back to the business.

To learn more about how IT Operations can use Lean and Kanban to deliver value faster, check out these 10 Board Examples for IT Operations and Development.

Maja Majewski

Maja is a content marketer at LeanKit, where she creates tools to help teams grow in their practice of Lean. She is passionate about process improvement, personal growth and food. Connect with Maja on her blog!

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