We recently held a “jam session” of five teleconferences aimed at moving IT beyond its traditional hunker down mentality in tough times, to instead use this climate as an opportunity to make real improvements in how we run IT.


The first call took on the topic of creating a leaner IT. There’s plenty of research at Forrester on lean thinking, but the term lean is so “in” right now, that I’m seeing multiple definitions emerge. Odds are, someone outside of IT will come knocking on your door asking when you’re going to “get lean.”  Here’s how to answer.


First, tell them what lean is not.


It’s not just cost cutting.  Blind cost cutting, led by the business or by IT, but too often in isolation from one another, only creates more waste.  We know the drill.  The <insert your industry here> IT shop cuts infrastructure and operations staff before fixing the systems management processes inherited from generations past. Fewer staff + still broken processes = costs remaining flat (at best) and lower system reliability.  Not leaner, just more broken.


It’s not just consolidation. 6% of jam session attendees said their firm had been very successful at consolidating one-off systems and activities. Why so low? First of all, consolidation efforts are hard and carry their own risks. Second, consolidation initiatives often concentrate only on assets and orgs, neglecting root cause problems: Bloated and/or duplicate processes.


It’s not always a methodology. Process improvement methods like Lean Six Sigma and the Agile family of software development methods have been around for years. Don’t confuse a lean methodology based on multiple gradations of belts (no disrespect; it’s all good stuff) with a simple way of thinking.


Cost cutting, consolidation, and rich methodologies can all be part of the antidote for bloated IT. But simplify your definition of lean into one of eliminating waste. And consider it more a mindset and culture than a guide.


Some not-so-usual suspects…


During our call, I asked the analysts to come up with some advice in the area of lean thinking and eliminating waste, advice that went beyond the usual suspects. Here are the nuggets that jumped out at me.


1) One of the biggest areas of waste in IT is over-planning or planning horizons that are too long for this economic climate.  Set an aggressive timeline for when you’ll complete any plan. Then, cut it in half.


2) Do the same thing to any assessment work, whether it’s of processes, assets, standards, etc.  If you’re spending more than two calendar months assessing a current state, stop, or get rid of the consultant.


3) Here’s a great rule of thumb for addressing org or process consolidation as part of a lean movement.  Start by identifying those activities that absolutely must be local or business unit-specific. From there, assume everything else is fair game for standardization and a shared approach.


4) Design IT processes – especially demand management processes – so that they kill off bad ideas really fast. Nothing saps morale or productivity more than a bad idea that just lingers.


5) Don’t allow lean thinking to be traded off against quality. True lean methods are designed to improve quality and learning continuously. Make sure this is part of your internal positioning.


6) Whether you tackle lean through cost-cutting, consolidation, and/or system optimization, treat it as more than just an ad hoc project. Treat lean thinking as an ongoing program or initiative, likely assigned to a PMO or other governance structure for stewardship.


Sidebar: Check out this report, hot off the presses, on software’s lean future.


Post your questions or share your organization’s biggest area of process waste, and what are you doing to improve it.