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What comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Lean IT vs Smart Process Automation…

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What comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Lean IT vs Smart Process Automation…


Conversation between Silver Tree IT Services Practice Leads:

John Petronzi, Smart Process Automation (SPA) and Kurt P Schmidt, PhD, Lean IT

John Petronzi on The Egg (SPA)

SPA enables enterprises to use “Digital Labor” to automate error prone, manually intensive (but moderately sophisticated) process steps with software tools designed to mimic / augment staff in IT or business operations centers.

QUESTION: Why automate inefficient processes? Isn’t that like paving a cow path instead of building a highway? You can get to where you’re going faster, but there’s got to be a better way…?

ANSWER: Paving the cow path first may make sense.  You will learn a lot about truck loading, fuel efficiency, delivery timing, delays encountered along the route, frequency of wrong turns, and much about the delivery process that may just not be available.

Bottom line: It is necessary to engineer a highway to support your current and future challenges.

QUESTION: Isn’t that a waste of resources?




ANSWER: Just the opposite.

Many enterprises rely on “experts” to execute their critical processes.  Frequently, these processes have evolved over time such that they no longer are supported by current documentary artifacts.  But the experts in these enterprises have adapted and are able to get the job done without current documentation.

Re-engineering these processes (first) means documenting them first to understand all aspects of how the processes are performed. That means taking some of the experts out of their day-to-day production roles, developing process maps, swim lanes, and defining the “as is” state. This takes time and money, and frequently the experts struggle with explaining the steps in detail because they have come to rely on operating intuitively.

Automating business processes that are not well documented may be the best first step. Many of the automation tools available today not only automate processes that are well defined, but also can define how the operations staff currently execute their work activities by observing their activities over a period of a few weeks. In that span of time these tools can begin taking over responsibility for as much as 40% to 50% of the transaction activity. And they generate metrics consistently that illustrate how various aspects of the process are performing.

So by automating first and re-engineering later you can save money that can be used to fund the re-engineering effort, deliver improvements quicker, and gather the process transparency necessary to redefine and re-imagine your critical business processes.

Kurt Schmidt’s Rebuttal: The Chicken (Lean IT)

There you go again! Conflating value stream mapping, the first phase of every Silver Tree Lean IT engagement, with process re-engineering. As you indicated process re-engineering requires detailed front-line activity examination. This is not a pre-requisite of Lean IT and if anything has been shown to devolve into tactical improvements over strategic improvements. Approaching the problem in a macro perspective requires that your senior leadership team take a holistic view of how work flows through the entire system, as we focus on in value stream mapping. It is from this vantage point that it is possible to establish a strategic direction for making improvements to the work flow.

Moreover, Lean IT embraces the Theory of Constraints. There is no point in spending time optimizing a process which is not the bottleneck.

For example: Getting a software feature in the hands of your customer.  Why train the development team in some agile discipline when the average project waits 4-5 months for the next big bang release into production? It’s great that the developers are producing code more efficiently but your customer doesn’t realize the benefit since they are still waiting on the features they want.

I would argue that until you have done value stream mapping capturing the metrics of Lead Time, Process Time and Per Cent Complete and Accurate for each component process you really don’t know whether you would be automating a value added process. You might get that step done faster but is that a step that is required to design, produce and deliver the service offered?

An example that comes to mind is code inspection. Maybe we could automate the inspection of code for quality, but if we required automated tests be written prior to developing the code as is the practice in Test Driven Development, we have a much more resilient path to improving software code quality.

The Egg Rebuttal to the Chicken

Good luck getting senior leadership to address this challenge from a holistic point of view Kurt. Unless they see immediate value and a short payback you won’t get them focused on why they should invest in a holistic assessment.

Finding opportunities for automation that have rapid payback, whether or not they represent “constraints”, provides several benefits that can support a more comprehensive Lean IT initiative. Automating a high-impact process should result in:

  • fewer errors resulting in improved quality
  • FTE reductions
  • faster cycle times
  • better services (or all of the above).

These benefits can be used to fund the next higher investment, longer lead time phase of investment, and, demonstrate to the senior leadership team that those investments in process improvements should not only be supported but accelerated.


Conclusion: The Chicken Concedes, kind of…

I have to agree that achieving Lean IT Services does require commitment from senior leadership. Enterprises are also concerned about capturing the knowledge of senior experts who are starting to think about retiring, which SPA can do. So even though I will always advocate that organizations should look at the big picture and strive to eliminate non-value activities, I could support an effort to convince clients to start their process improvement with an SPA engagement which can drive out cost. I might even concede that the automation that SPA brings to an IT service may actually drive down wait time.

The important thing is that organizations take on the spirit of continuous improvement, which will lead them to continuing the journey and recognize that there can be value in what Michael Hammer once described as paving a cow path. Namely we can capture basic information for designing the road required to carry the traffic the organization is targeting in the future.

Want to learn more? View our various assessments and case studies. We welcome the opportunity to explore how we can help you.