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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 out.

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), 148.

Read more IT Process Improvement

This article was excerpted from:

Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation

Information Technology is supposed to enable business performance and innovation, improve service levels, manage change, and maintain quality and stability, all while steadily reducing operating costs. Yet when an enterprise begins a Lean transformation, too often the IT department is either left out or viewed as an obstacle. What is to be done? This book shares practical tips, examples, and case studies to help you establish a culture of continuous improvement to deliver IT operational excellence and business value to your organization.

About the Authors

Steven C. Bell, CFPIM brings over twenty years' experience in finance, operations management and information systems. He is the author of Lean Enterprise Systems, Using IT for Continuous Improvement.

Michael A. Orzen, CMA, CFPIM, PMP delivers a unique blend of IT, operations management, Lean, Six Sigma, and project management. With a BA from Stanford University in economics and an MBA from the University of Oregon, Mike has been consulting, coaching, and teaching for over 20 years.

Steve and Mike are faculty members of the Lean Enterprise Institute. Together, the authors combine their experience in information systems and process improvement to share their lessons learned.