Lean IT: Think Big About Agility

Cloud, DevOps, Agile and Lean Startup methodologies all aim to make companies more adaptive. But alone, no one of them can deliver on that promise.
Humans are part of a greater whole, too. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that sublimating ourselves into a greater whole has significant evolutionary advantage. "Ecstatic" experiences, such as a religious epiphany, or dancing at a rave, or even rooting for a sports team, provoke specific feelings in our brains that take us out of ourselves and make us feel part of something greater. We stop being self-organized, and start being part of the organism. We function as one, with a collective consciousness.

It's this organism that we're after when we try to improve business. The circus acrobat's agility is their organism. It's their nerves, their muscles, their cardio-pulmonary system, working in concert, adapting instantaneously to changes, continuously learning and iterating.

Organizations don't want a security department -- they want an immune system. They don't want a customer support desk -- we want a reflex action. Organizations regulate, delegate and proceduralize; organisms react, respond and learn.

The reason we haven't reaped the full harvest of clouds, agile, Lean, and DevOps is that we're still looking at these things as organs, when instead we have to sublimate them into the organism. Like the wheels on a tank tread, each wheel can turn on its own -- but only when all the wheels work together does the traction of the vehicle improve dramatically.

We need a name for this. I'm going to call it Lean IT. It's a re-engineering of the supply chain of businesses, from the conception of a product to its delivery. One might argue that this only applies to software products, but I'd disagree:

-- What are Fedex, DHL, or UPS if not cloud logistics?

-- What is mobile CRM if not realtime salesforce automation?

-- What is 3-D printing if not the replacement of inventory with data?

Why Lean is hard for fat companies

Lean IT requires that we understand a broad range of disciplines -- not just Lean, Cloud, DevOps and Agile, but also tools like analytics (to measure and learn) and Continuous Deployment (to provision and deploy.) Lean IT is also a real challenge for traditional IT organizations, which abhor change and value stability.

Wilbur has two important criteria for what makes a holon, which underscore why creating this kind of environment is challenging for such organizations.

-- First, it must be whole unto itself, and simultaneously a part of a greater system, as the heart is to the body. Holons that cannot maintain their wholeness will break up into their constituent parts -- just as a company that can't maintain a holistic Lean IT strategy will retreat into age-old silos of development, QA, and operations.

-- Second, Wilbur says that holons can't form a whole unless the other parts exist, and the conditions are right for them to thrive. Put another way, a heart won't survive unless it's part of an organism that can feed it, shelter it and so on. If you've got an agile initiative, but the organism lacks the other pieces, you won't achieve Lean IT.

Favoring readiness over stability

I'll end with another analogy. When you have a tall tower, it's stable. But it's not in its most stable configuration, which would be one of lying down, the point of lowest potential energy. Traditional IT wants the position of maximum stability (lying down), because that's predictable and reliable. A tower that's standing up seems like a liability, because it can be knocked over.

But that tower has a tremendous amount of potential energy, easily converted to kinetic energy with only a slight push. It can react in a direction with significant force.

Lean IT -- and the much-overused Agility for which it strives -- is a stance an organization needs to adopt. It's one of lower stability, and greater responsiveness. It's one where the organization is able to embrace new things, act in new directions, forget the past. It values the ability to change over the reliability of staying in one place. But to do this, it needs balance and poise.

New organizations are naturally in this position. Without investments in the past, without baggage, they're free to choose and adjust. They don't have processes and procedures, and they don't have the liabilities that come from history.

More than anything, Lean IT is a threat to fat organizations. Only by adopting lean approaches throughout the product, development, deployment and operational aspects of IT will we truly achieve the agility we're after. Only by creating an environment in which Cloud, Agile, Lean and DevOps can thrive will they avoid the traditional silos from which technologies suffer. And only then will those organizations become organisms capable of the adaptivity we want.