Global CIO: Lean Means More Than Just Taking Out The Trash

If your Lean strategy is focused solely on cutting waste, you&#8217;ll miss the value that comes from focusing on the <i>business</i> of the business instead of the technology behind the business, Forrester says.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 7, 2009

4 Min Read

If you think it's simply about reducing waste, you're selling its guiding principles short. Eliminating waste should be done in the context of the other critical components of the strategy: creating business and customer value and increasing corporate flexibility.

Companies that have excelled in Lean don't look at technology first: they look at technology last. Lean isn't about automation, which can hide some of the waste. The Wall Street Journal recently had a fascinating piece on Starbucks and their efforts to implement Lean strategies in their workplace (watch the barista the next time you order a double latte and take note of any differences). Let's also look at a common example of waste within organizations: transportation. Some argue that it's essential to supply-chain management.

Maybe it is a necessary evil—or maybe you just haven't spent the time needed to come up with a more efficient process. In manufacturing, the answer may be to move your suppliers or factories. In a service business that is centered on interaction, perhaps the answer is telepresence, web conferencing or some other collaboration tools. Yet, our recent Workforce Technographics™ study of over 2,000 information workers shows those technologies are not being adopted in the workplace. For instance, only 4% of information workers are using web conferencing hourly or daily. This is just one example of how technology can support the business, make it more efficient, and increase customer value.

But process upheaval isn't easy, particularly within the technology organization.

As Forrester CEO and George Colony recently said in an interview, "I'd say the job of the technologist is the most difficult in a company. It's a very difficult job because things break." Because of the fire drills that often control their lives, IT professionals become comfortable with the status quo: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. They have forever been rewarded for technical excellence regardless of whether they are delivering any customer value.

Changing the mindset and behavior of IT is your opportunity to shine in your efforts to better collaborate with the business. It falls to you, the CIO and the IT leader, to lead by example, setting priorities in a customer-centric way and rewarding the people and the cultural behaviors that are compatible with Lean Thinking, while deterring behaviors that are not.

So how can you deliver business and customer value? Here are a few recommendations based on the discussions we’ve had with our clients that are adopting Lean in their IT organizations:

1) Start at a micro level. Lean is heady stuff. If done properly, you're re-inventing your business. That can be intimidating. So, don't start at the top. You can start Lean on a single process, a single location. It can be bottom up.

2) Talk to your customers. Sounds simple, but a lot of organizations make it very difficult for people who deliver business solutions to get direct insight from customers. With Lean, it's critical to move beyond focus groups and conduct field research. For example, the software developers building your customer interface need legitimate user feedback on what does and doesn't work. Once you have that feedback, it's critical to be able to iterate very rapidly. You don't want to be in a situation where the loop of getting customer insight and then having something to show for it is too long.

We recently had an interesting discussion with a leading professional-services company. In the work they do with clients to improve their web-user experience, it is critical that they be able to turn the crank in a couple of weeks. Over the course of a six-month initiative, it empowers them to be very experimental and then implement customer feedback to better tailor the user experience.

3) Stop thinking about the technology. Forget about the acronyms. ERP, CRM, BPM, and the alphabet soup are only important once you know what the business and your customers need and want. This is a big red flag for technologists because this is their comfort zone, but it is essential that you look at your processes from a customer point of view.

4) Don't buy and install software you don't need. This sounds obvious but, when you evaluate software for any given project, make brevity and compactness a consideration. Too many organizations spend far too much time and effort trying to find the products with most features. Lean shops look for just enough, no more.

Lean is not an overnight panacea. But, regardless of how mature your organization's thinking is on the principles that drive Lean, you can start making a difference now by applying those principles to your IT organization.

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