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Q&A on the Lean IT Field Guide


In the book The Lean IT Field Guide – A Roadmap for Your Transformation Mike Orzen and Tom Paider explain how to initiate, execute, and sustain a Lean IT transformation.

InfoQ interviewed the book authors about how agile and lean IT relate to each other, their view on processes in IT and the purpose that they serve, how lean can be seen as a learning system, examples of how visibility in lean helps to improve, why managers should have both technical and social skills, how to assure that changes will sustain in an organization, and how to apply lean to establish a culture of engineering excellence and craftsmanship.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Mike Orzen: After writing our first book, Lean IT, many people said they liked the book but wished it had more of prescriptive approach to inform them on the specifics on what to do to actually get started deploying a lean implementation in IT and throughout their organization. I resisted the notion at first, because I had learned Lean IT through trial and discovery and had been taught that each person needs to experience a journey of setbacks, reflection, and learning. After a few years, I came to see that we could provide a roadmap while avoiding being overly prescriptive and removing the discovery from the process.

Tom Paider: I was also skeptical about a prescriptive approach to transformation – after all, every company’s situation is different. But we had so many people asking the question, “How do we start the transformation process?” While no one can prescribe all the necessary steps and actions for a successful lean transformation, we noted that certain actions typically led to greater levels of success. And that’s what we tried to represent in The Lean IT Field Guide – A Roadmap for Your Transformation.

InfoQ: How in your opinion do agile and lean IT relate to each other?

Mike Orzen: Absolutely, but I think many people are not clear what the relationship is. In my opinion, Lean IT is an umbrella concept that encompasses all applications of lean thinking to IT including development, operations, infrastructure, etc. This includes agile but also DevOps, Continuous Delivery, Lean Start Up, Lean Project Management, Kanban, and even ITIL.

Agile applies many of the core concepts of lean to drive productivity, quality and velocity of functional software releases (small lot sizes, voice of the customer, iterative learning, closed feedback loops, visual management, and team stand ups to name a few).

Where I think agile can be challenging is when we lose site of the value stream (a core lean concept) and focus exclusively on the software development segment of the stream. The value stream approach used in lean IT complements agile by ensuring we zoom out to take the broader perspective of customer value (end users and paying customers) when evaluating the effectiveness of any change or improvement.

Tom Paider: I would add that with agile, we often don’t fully transform the management system, which can ultimately lead to the failure of agile at the frontline level. Lean gives us a comprehensive view of the role of a manager – setting direction, modeling behavior, and coaching and developing people. With that context, management can better support agile teams.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate why having a clear purpose is important?

Mike Orzen: To be a truly effective lean organization that embraces excellence, you need clear purpose, engaged people, constantly improving processes, and structured problem solving applied throughout the organization (these are “the 4 P’s"). Notice purpose comes first. People need a clear and meaningful purpose which to align their effort be it lean, agile, or simply doing their daily work. Without a clear and commonly shared purpose, everyone may be working hard, but not necessarily in the same direction toward a relevant common goal!

InfoQ: What's your view of processes in IT, which purpose should they serve?

Tom Paider: We take the view that processes and standards are simply the best way we know how to do something right now. It is the responsibility of those doing the processes to not only understand and be able to demonstrate the current standard, but to constantly be striving to improve that standard. In a lean IT organization, the goal isn’t just to do your job, but rather to find better ways to do your job every day. Lean empowers the people doing the work to continuously improve their processes. Lean leaders encourage this improvement daily.

InfoQ: Can you explain how you see lean as a learning system?

Mike Orzen: At the end of the day, lean is about learning through a series of experiments. Each experiment brings discovery of what works and what does not. All experiments are an attempt to better understand cause and effect. In lean we use a learning cycle know as PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) to follow a structured process of problem solving that, when followed properly, always leads to deep learning. This is because, by its very nature, each cycle of PDCA is a learning cycle.

InfoQ: Do you have some examples showing how visibility in lean helps to improve?

Mike Orzen: When people can see actual versus planned performance they can, as a team, acknowledge where there is a gap between where they are and where they need to be. Visuality of performance makes those gaps and improvement opportunities apparent to everyone, pulling them out of the shadows and away from being used as the source of blame and ridicule.

Examples include frequency, volume, and severity of outages, and incidents; customer satisfaction; time to deliver; and first yield quality (these can apply to any IT group).

Tom Paider: Visibility also creates accountability and transparency. By making performance targets and improvement projects visible, they are more difficult to ignore and keep everyone focused on the goal.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that you prefer that managers have both technical and social skills. Can you explain why this matters?

Mike Orzen: Most managers are promoted based on technical skills. Technical skills often lapse as managers get further away from the frontlines and technology changes. That said, the key social skills managers need along with technical know-how, is the ability to connect with people, foster mutual respect and trust, and develop their people to become great problem solvers using lean thinking (PDCA learning cycles).

Tom Paider: Lean managers are first and foremost coaches for their staff. It’s not the job of the manager to solve all problems – it’s to teach others how to solve problems. Managers that only have technical skills struggle to translate their knowledge to appropriate coaching on problem solving and development.

InfoQ: Can you give some suggestions on what can be done to assure that changes will sustain in an organization?

Mike Orzen: This is a very important piece of the puzzle, by some estimates 97% of transformations do not sustain themselves! A Lean Management System and Leader Standard Work go a long way towards building mechanisms that ensure systems continually improve and gains are sustained. The book goes into great deal on how to build these systems as well as others which drive sustainability of the transformation.

InfoQ: How can you apply lean to establish a culture of engineering excellence and craftsmanship?

Tom Paider: Too often we see lean implementations that focus only on the soft, periphery aspects of the IT organization. Visual management, huddles, the lean management system, etc. are in place, but the organization has ignored core technology and engineering. Lean IT involves all aspects of technology, including engineering. The hard part is applying lean thinking to this area. This is a problem where DevOps is making many inroads, infusing lean thinking everywhere from how we test and deploy code to how we address infrastructure.

About the Interviewees

With a consulting and coaching career spanning more than 20 years, Mike Orzen has gathered a unique blend of lean, IT, finance, and operations experience he uses to coach organizations in their pursuit of Enterprise Excellence. His personable approach and people-first philosophy has inspired leaders and empowered workforces to successfully apply conscious awareness, lean, and enterprise excellence practices in many complex work environments. He is the co-author of the award-winning book Lean IT and recipient of the Shingo Research & Professional Publication Award. He holds degrees from Stanford University and the University of Oregon. Mike teaches with the Lean Enterprise Institute, the Shingo Institute, and The Ohio State University Fisher School of Business. When he’s not traveling around the world speaking, consulting with clients, and sharing his vision of lean, respect for people, and using personal awareness to drive excellence, he resides in Oregon City, Oregon with his wife Lynda and their cats.

Tom Paider is an IT executive for Nationwide, a Fortune 100 insurance and financial services company. His teams work across Nationwide to foster lean thinking and improve software development capability. He is also a lean coach in the Masters in Business Operational Excellence program at The Ohio State University. Tom is the co-founder of the IT Leadership Network at the Center for Operational Excellence at The Ohio State University, a partnership between industry and academic leaders focused on helping member companies collaborate and sustain their lean journeys. Tom has consulted with dozens of companies ranging from startups to large enterprises on their lean transformations. He resides in Hilliard, OH, with his wife Tara and son Ethan.

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