Lean IT: Principles over Practice

In my previous two blogs I spoke of the importance of culture in achieving Lean IT. I wrote about why and how cultural change impacts the success of a program devoted to eliminating lead time in our IT Services. Starting with this blog I begin an effort to pivot to the mechanics of Lean IT. However, first I must caution that adopting Lean cannot simply be achieved by copying practices from some successful early adopter of Lean IT. Principles must be your focus.


The easiest and most comfortable approach for us to learn a new skill or paradigm is to practice what others have done to achieve success. There is a lot to be said for this approach. Apprenticeships are based on this. It is possible to view Software Development as a craft, which is best learned from such an approach. If the mentor teaches good habits the apprentice will learn to avoid common pitfalls. I am thinking about such things as writing tests before code, as directed by Test Driven Development (TDD). The apprentice will practice test writing, but it is the principle of writing the test, which is the real lesson.


If we think about the lessons of lean manufacturing from the Toyota Production System something that always stands out is that no one becomes a team leader without first working within a manufacturing cell. When we want to evaluate a value stream the focus is on Going to Gemba. That is, we go to where the work is being performed. Walking the process is fundamental to value stream mapping. Some analysts have proposed that Toyota’s recent quality issues and recalls have a basis in their recent goal of becoming the number one auto manufacturer has required scaling faster than the essential apprenticing allows, which was inherent in the success of the original Toyota Production System (TPS).


This is all to say that following practices developed by experienced sources is a critical factor to learning something outside your realm. In the case of COTS back office software such as HR or Finance, we admonish clients to follow best practices over trying to customize such systems. Now with industry turning to SaaS sticking to best practices is even more in force.


However, I think we need to be careful about blindly following the idea that we need to be looking outside our organization for best practices for all our processes. Particularly, be cautious that there is a best practice out there for your core competencies. When we want to optimize and make lean our core competencies we need to really focus on Principles. When we keep principles in mind we can avoid falling to the habit of borrowing some other’s practice. The inability to pull practices out of the Nummi Freemont Plant and drop them into the Van Nuys plant without inculcating both management and the union in the principles of TPS underscores this (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/nummi).  The success of the joint venture of Nummi in part can be traced to adopting the principles of TPS not just pulling practices from Japan. Is your organization willing to learn the principles or will it just try to fund a pilot project to import some practices?