Is Lean IT Killing Your Digital Transformation Plans?

There is value in IT adopting the Lean concepts established in manufacturing, but do so with care, particularly is you are heading through digital transformation initiatives.

Andrew Froehlich, President & Lead Network Architect, West Gate Networks

May 28, 2019

4 Min Read
Image: Olivier Le Moal -

The results of a recent survey conducted by TrackVia show that 62% of business department heads wanted to submit a digital transformation (DX) implementation request to their IT department -- but decided against it. Their stated reason for not moving forward with the request was because they felt "IT departments are under-resourced, and the request would take too long."

It’s possible that some of the cause of these shortcomings may be improperly deployed Lean IT (or ITIL, DevOps, etc.) practices. For IT departments that are working within a Lean IT framework, it's not uncommon to experience times where teams become overwhelmed. However, any prolonged downturn in service quality and response likely means your Lean IT goals are not properly aligning with the business. Here's a quick rundown on the realistic gains found in Lean IT -- and what to do if it's not functioning as expected.

What is Lean IT and why is it failing?

As most of you are already aware, Lean IT is a business concept that was copied from a strict efficiency approach to manufacturing processes. However, instead of creating efficiencies on the manufacturing floor, they can be created within the IT department. Ultimately, Lean IT is about doing more with less – with the assumption that benefits achieved from Lean IT will be no less than what they were before a lean framework was implemented. 

If that’s the case, then why is it common for newly instituted Lean IT shops to become overwhelmed with keeping the lights on while failing to respond to new digital transformation requests?

Much of the problem has to do with the approach IT leadership takes towards Lean IT. They are so fixated on achieving the expected efficiencies that many of the steps required to evolve to a Lean state are hurried. Processes end up being sloppily automated – or hastily offloaded to a third-party managed service provider. Additionally, IT staff aren’t properly trained on their new roles within a Lean IT framework. What often happens is that these automated processes or outsourced services go off kilter. The in-house team must then scramble to right the ship. Thus, when IT staff are supposed to be ready to engage with business departments regarding complex projects such as digital transformation, it turns out that Lean IT is causing more harm than good.

What should be done to remedy the Lean IT problem?

The first thing to keep in mind is that IT should not be in any huge hurry to significantly trim down in terms of time and technology waste. A proper framework must first be put in place that clearly outlines and categorizes technology services, how they should be implemented, supported and spun down at the end of the lifecycle. These processes should be broad enough to encompass things like technical staff/management roles, service provider requirements, lifecycle planning, quality control and lines of communication.

Also keep in mind that unlike Lean manufacturing, Lean IT must take into consideration the speed at which technology advances and the volatility in what the business needs. Manufacturing is far more static in nature – and major changes can be planned for well in advance. Yet, with IT, that’s not the case. The need to adopt disruptive digital technologies can strike at lightning speed. Added to this is the fact that DX is about converting all business processes to a digitized state under the operational umbrella of the IT department. Thus, even a minor pivot in business strategy requires IT to change or add new technologies to accommodate for shifting business processes.

Ultimately, this is a case where Lean IT likely can’t become nearly as “lean” as what many would like to believe. Certainly not nearly as lean as what can be accomplished in manufacturing. Instead, a buffer of resource time and money must be built-in to accommodate for fluctuations in the services that IT departments must manage or create. Certainly, there is room for IT departments to streamline their processes, workflows and management of services. But it’s also important to be realistic about how streamlined it can be given our current pace of digital innovation.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Froehlich

President & Lead Network Architect, West Gate Networks

Andrew has well over a decade of enterprise networking under his belt through his consulting practice, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and datacenter build-outs and prior experience at organizations such as State Farm Insurance, United Airlines and the University of Chicago Medical Center. Having lived and worked in South East Asia for nearly three years, Andrew possesses a unique international business and technology perspective. When he's not consulting, Andrew enjoys writing technical blogs and is the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex.

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