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Lean IT in Simple Terms

"Lean" is a method applied by Toyota to their manufacturing system in the 1990's. "Lean IT" is an extension of this method applied to the IT environment. It's difficult to lean what lean IT is because any description or explanation of it is loaded with buzzwords and jargon. In order to sell training seminars and certifications and such, the business community wants to make the concept of "lean" as complicated and confusing as possible.

Actually the concept of Lean IT is very simple, however it does require a different way of thinking and a different organizational culture than the previous idea that managers should be dictators and employees are just tools. Below are the five basic principles of Lean IT.

1. Focus on customer value.

In the IT field it's easy to stray away from the focus on customer value. For example a cool feature might be very easy to add to a software product. But if, from the customers point of view that feature adds no value, than any effort put forth to include it in the product is a waste. Another feature might be interesting and challenging to add to a software product, but again, if it adds no value from the customers point of view, time spent adding that feature to the product is a wasted.

So the most important, but very simple principle of Lean IT is to understand what provides value to the customer. Stay focused on adding value and not investing time in what seems easy or interesting.

2. Eliminate waste.

Waste is work that does not add customer value. Now, you might view some work invested in creating systems that make future product version development or deployment quicker as not contributing to customer value, but it does contribute. If it holds down the cost of future versions, that definitely adds value for the customer. Sometimes it's difficult to tell what is waste and what is not. Is providing free coffee and donuts to employees a waste? Not if it increases productivity. Is holding a meeting a waste? You would be surprised how often it is.

3. Management as a facilitator.

In the old "Henry Ford" days of manufacturing a manager was like a powerful god. A dictator who an employee would cower to and kiss up to in order to protect their job security and future advancement in the company. With Lean IT those days are long gone. The employees are now viewed as a team, and the manager is just a team member whose function is to "facilitate".

To facilitate means to communicate and coordinate with all the invested partners in the organization. Understand what has value to the customer, what the goals of the company are and communicate them to the team. If the team or someone on the team needs training, the manager facilitates the administration of that training. If the team or someone on the team needs a tool, the manager facilitates the acquisition that tool.

That's not to say that managers are powerless and without authority. But their main way implementing their power is through communicating the organizationís goals to the team, and communicating the teams process, problems, and progress to the invested partners in the organization.

4. The involvement of all employees.

As I explained earlier, before Lean IT the employee was just a tool. They didn't need to know what the companies goals are. They did what they were told, shut up, and didn't rock the boat. Since the employee is on the front line of the development process, they often see problems, have ideas, or see ways to improve the process. But in the past they just laughed and kept it to themselves.

With Lean IT, every employee has the same value as every other member of the team. Maybe their job function is viewed not as important as another member of the team, but in reality they are just as important. For example, when I was the manager of an electronics design team, some employees had the function of maintaining the parts cabinets. Seems like a lowly job compared to that of a systems programmer. But when a part was not available from the parts cabinets, and had to be ordered, the subsequent delay proved that the function of maintaining the parts cabinets was indeed important.

5. Continual improvement.

Every development project is a process, and there will always be complications and problems along the way. Since the employees on the team are now in a position to provide their input, and the manager on the team is acting as a facilitator to solicit that input, it is possible to take measures to avoid those complications and problems on the next iteration of the project. It is important for the manager facilitator to keep the goal of continual improvement upmost in everyone mind. Keep those ideas coming in.

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