When most of us think of waste, images of landfills and dumpsters come to mind. We may also imagine overpriced products that quickly lost their luster and are now stored in our junk drawer or the garage. In today’s business world, we are not only concerned with these traditional forms of waste but also waste in the form of activities that do not add value to our customers. Which is why many businesses are looking to implement methods for eliminating this business waste, such as the “Lean” manufacturing methodology first developed by Toyota.
The Japanese term “muda” is used to describe waste in the Lean manufacturing methodology. Muda processes consume more resources than needed to add value to the end customer and there are two types of muda in Lean. The first type can be seen as overhead: it doesn’t necessarily add value to the customer but it is required for the organization or to meet regulatory needs. The second type is true waste: it adds no value to the customer and is not required for the business. Lean practitioners primarily focus their efforts on identifying and eliminating process steps that fit into this second type of muda.
You might wonder how these Lean manufacturing principles for reducing waste can be applied to the IT field. Here at Thought Ensemble, we have heard our fair share of horror stories (and have even been pulled into helping clean some of them up) that could have been prevented had implementing Lean concepts within the IT organization been considered. The compound effects of several different types of waste can begin to diminish the effectiveness, and therefore the reputation, of an IT organization over time. As the business starts to notice the waste present in the IT organization, it might begin outsourcing technical work and projects, leading to multiple disparate systems across the organization. As the business brings in support for these systems, IT begins to lose its place at the table and its value to the overall organization.
Lean identifies seven types of waste that are typical to both business and IT. Properly identifying and eliminating (or at least reducing) these forms of waste can go a long way in helping your company avoid being yet another horror story:
- Transportation (the movement of materials, people, or information if that movement does not add value for the customer): In IT this form of waste can manifest itself when shipping a server to a location to be configured prior to deploying it to the data center where it will be used, instead of configuring it at the data center. Or having employees commute to an office everyday even when some days they’d be more productive from home. Or when users have to transmit data via email or thumb drives instead of a cloud service. Transportation does not only add time, it can also add unnecessary (and variable) risks.
- Inventory (the practice of stocking more inventory than is necessary to do your work): We often see this manifest in IT shops when they keep an oversized stock of spare laptops and other equipment ready to deploy to new hires or to replace failed equipment. Or in software licenses that are paid for but not used. Or when purchasing more server space or computing power than is needed for the type of work being done. This inventory can represent a capital outlay that has not yet generated income to the business and can also take your inventory from being an asset to becoming more of a liability (consuming physical space, having slow turnover, etc.).
- Motion (the prolonged searching for supplies, tools, parts, or information): In IT, this can manifest itself in extra keystrokes needed to run a report. Or in a disorganized file structure that is cumbersome or unintuitive to navigate. Or even in physically organizing team members who need to communicate frequently in distance parts of the office or even on different floors. This additional movement may seem minor in single instances, but when compounded over hundreds of employees, hundreds of interactions, and hundreds of days, you are looking at some serious waste.
- Waiting (idle time created when material, information, people, or equipment are not ready): In IT this type of waste can manifest itself when a Service Desk employee isn’t enabled to support multiple tickets and has to wait for an end user to address a question about their incident. Or when an employee has to sit through an entire meeting, which does not add value to them or their work, simply so that they can provide one piece of information at the end. Or when a developer is waiting on a user story to begin coding. Waiting wastes the time of valuable resources who are not actively adding value to the customer during those wait times.
- Overproduction (the producing of more product than what the customer needs right now): Typically in IT this manifests itself in the creation of metrics reports that are no longer meaningful to their audience. Or in the addition of “really cool” features that the customer didn’t ask for when a minimally viable product could have been out the door and receiving valuable feedback much sooner. Or when departments don’t share customer information internally and customers are either contacted too much or their input isn’t used (think of a customer giving feedback to sales, which never makes it to engineering because there are no channels setup for that transfer of information). Overproduction can lead to excess work, wasted time, and lost opportunities to delight the customer.
- Excess Processing (the extra effort or activities that add no value from the customer’s perspective): We see this manifest itself when employees have to enter the same data into two separate systems that should be integrated. Or in an unbalanced ratio of management to individual contributors; there is great strategy, direction, and oversight but a struggle to get things done. Or in extra handoffs and unnecessary approvals during a product development process that makes it difficult to get your product to market. Not only does this waste time and resources, but you are potentially losing out to your competitors who have faster delivery and response times.
- Defects (work that contains errors, causes rework, or lacks something of value that is necessary): This manifests itself in buggy code. Or in a lack of QA processes. Or in shipping products that don’t meet the customer requirements. Defects are not completely avoidable, but if not properly managed or addressed they can drastically increase labor costs, delay delivery of the final product, and cause you to lose customers.
Identifying and reducing waste can lead to significant cost savings as well as improvements to customer satisfaction and employee morale. It forces us to evaluate our processes and determine what steps actually add value to the customer and which are performed because they made sense at one time. The structure of Lean teams allows individual contributors to make decisions and quickly implement improvements, improving the confidence and productivity of the entire team. Finally, it makes us challenge our assumptions about what our customers really need so that we can focus our resources around meeting those needs.
I’d love to hear your opinion. Do you use any lean in your technology organization? If so, have you identified other specific wastes that exist in your environment?