Lean in IT: Process versus Practice
Steven C. Bell and Michael A. Orzen
At its core, Lean in IT supports process improvement by providing the right
information, at the right time, in the right format, to the right audience.
The usefulness of information is determined by the nature of work being
performed. In this regard, it’s helpful to differentiate work as either process
or practice to better understand what type of information is needed.
The term process describes a series of
actions or operations supported by structured information. Processes are
activities that are generally repetitive, well-defined, routine, controllable,
and standardized. In contrast, practices are non-routine, highly variable,
loosely defined, and require a degree of judgment and experience to carry
To illustrate the distinction, consider a visit to your doctor. The nurse
visits you first and performs standard, routine procedures (e.g., takes your
blood pressure, and temperature)this is process work. When the doctor
arrives, she reviews your chart and asks how you are feeling. Then she
proceeds to examine, diagnose, and prescribe based on your symptoms
and medical history, supported by her experience and professional judgment
this is practice work. Society tends to describe professions (such as
legal, accounting, and medical) that depend on a great deal of education,
judgment, and unstructured information processing as practices.
The difference between process and practice influences how improvements
should be approached and what type of information best supports
the work. In Product Lifecycle Management, Michael Grieves explains the
important difference, as well as a common pitfall that leads to hyper-efficiency
at the expense of flexibility:
The information requirements are different for practices than those of processes.
With processes, the focus is on the movement from state to state
as quickly as possible. With practices, the focus is on collecting data and
information at each state in order to build a pool of information to improve
the recognition of patterns in the future. However, when processes and
practices are both part of a task or procedure that is being automated, the
information goals of the practice often get minor attention.1
The better defined a process is, the more efficiently it can be executed.
Process standardization creates efficiencies, and information
systems should be designed to reinforce explicitly defined procedures.
Efficient processes are fortified when information systems automate
routine tasks, such as mistake-proofing data entry, and providing feedback
for ongoing improvement. Applying the 80/20 rule, simplifying
and automating the 20 percent of core processes that account for 80
percent of the volume and burden can make a significant and immediate
impact on efficiency, freeing up human capacity for practices that
require experience and judgment.
On the other hand, information used in practice work is typically
unstructured, difficult to define, and often experiential. When improving
practices, the focus is on supporting a learning organization through
an accessible collection of knowledge of past experiences to enable situation-
specific decision making. To support practice work, knowledge management
systems should be designed to manage both unstructured data
(e.g., searchable content, documents, and images) and structured data (e.g., information
in transactional databases, drilldown reports, trend analyses).
They may also provide access to collaborative social networks, forums,
blogs, wikis, and other sources of free-form knowledge sharing.
Over time, some of the elements of practice work may be simplified and
standardized into processes, effectively creating more efficiency without
sacrificing agility. Successful organizations attempt to achieve an optimal
balance between process and practice which has been described as mass
customization: the ability to produce products and services with the flexibility
to meet a wide range of customer needs while maintaining mass
production efficiency. With a clear understanding
of the differences between process and practice, IT associates working
with the business are better able to provide appropriate information,
contributing to the evolution of business processes and practices.
1. Michael Grieves. Product Lifecycle Management (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006),
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