If you had asked me 30 years ago how lean could help your IT Service Management people, processes, partners and tools, you would have received this response: ‘What’s lean?’.

Thirty years later (eleven data centres, twenty Service Desks, several hundred million in infrastructure or tools purchased, over 300 people managed and other 100 coached, ITIL Expert, COBIT, Prince2, OBASHI and Business Continuity certified) I can just about begin to answer that question!

The first time I was asked to lead a lean project, most of the information I found was manufacturing based. I had been consulting for four years and this new assignment began a journey that has introduced me to lean, DevOPS, Kanban, Agile, TOC and BDD/TDD leaders, many of whom are now mentors of mine.

Lean likes asking questions, so my first one is - ‘why do I use ITIL or COBIT?’ The answer is simple - they are the best-known, IT-focused frameworks giving direction on how to do or lead a technology-based initiative. All new methodologies are based on these two.

No current IT framework is perfect, ‘best practice’ or provides ways of defining value, solving problems or continuously improving people on how to best get technology to be the core of a business. Please don't get me wrong, I believe in ITIL and COBIT, and constantly refer to them as a foundation for coaching improvement in technology use and management. But I personally needed something else.

Lean begins by posing this scenario (from Michael Ballé or the novel The Phoenix Project) -  if you are not doing IT for the customer, to better your business, or to help your staff, then why are you doing IT?

This is a profound question as it makes you wonder why you need the new shiny thing, why it takes six months to launch something no one wants, or why our IT strategy does not support our organisation. This is an example of the difference between lean in IT versus ITIL or COBIT. Lean forces you to think differently and from a different perspective.

 Lean IT Diagram

The Phoenix Project by Kim, Behr and Spafford has a wonderful section in which IT management asks each department head what their goals and obstacles are, regardless of IT. Now, instead of planning from technology, or their teams, to the goal or obstacle, they work backwards. They ask - ‘why does what we want to do help?’ This one question allowed them to discover a better way of collaborating with their business sponsors and supplier partners to create a dynamic strategy that was better, faster, safer and ultimately less costly. Moreover, their people got excited and supportive, which infected the entire organisation.

I now regularly ask the following questions, given to me by Michael Ballé (author of Lead with Respect):

  • What is a good day for you, your team and your customer?
  • How do you know? How can you visualise what is happening?
  • How do your teams or suppliers help you every day to address a problem or challenge?
  • How do you help them?

No solution discussions, just doing as Stephen Covey suggests: listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. 

As I reviewed each response, I remembered this lean maxim - all of your IT (people, process and stuff) is a waste unless it is making things better, faster, safer and ultimately less costly.

Lean (or the derivatives known as DevOPS and Agile) has many tools to help the practitioner develop what they are trying to accomplish. Visual displays of the most important, agreed targets, how work should be performed, problem solving techniques, ways to organise what we do, methods to create and align performance measurements and good practices on cost management (no, not job cuts). Lean enables teams to look at a situation, try something, learn from it and try again until satisfied, but within an agreed governance structure.

Look at Flickr, Google, Amazon, Nike and also at many banks or healthcare organisations - they have embraced lean IT and use it to help their customers. Are they perfect? Don't they have problems? Of course not, and yes, they have plenty - but the journey of experimenting helps them improve, and the involvement of customers, staff and partners makes the cycle faster.

So lean supports ITIL and COBIT. It helps teams to communicate collaboratively or create things in a better way. It enables your ITIL processes, which Shingo Prize winner Mike Orzen says you should not ignore but instead use to create a standard way of working so you can improve continually. Try it, go and see how your stuff is being used, involve others and see if you can create a better, faster, safer, more productive environment.

About the author

Daniel Breston has 30+ years leading IT Service, Operations, Applications, Data Centre and service partners in management of technology enabling business processes and functions. He has consulted and coached leadership teams across the EU and UK in developing their people, processes and use of technology to deliver technology services better, faster, safer.