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Lean Thinking

Howard Williams and Rebecca Duray

While most of the general principles and objectives of the Lean Approach are derived from experiences in manufacturing, there has been considerable work on their application to a wide variety of other domains, including Services. It was a small but significant step to popularize Lean concepts derived originally from manufacturing by presenting them in such a way that a general audience could consider the application of Lean to practically any type of process, particularly those that have sequential and repeatable characteristics. This was accomplished in the publication of Lean Thinking.[1] For many, this book represented a jumping point to a new way of looking at processes, one in which Lean practices could reasonably be tried and tested in any industry and for a wide variety of purposes. The distillation of Lean concepts resulted in, among other things, a short list of Lean characteristics that we can think of as essential indicators or objectives of Lean applications.

All work is organized around the objective of deriving customer value and, to that end, all tasks or activities that do not directly and clearly support this objective are candidates for scrutiny and possible elimination.

At its core, Lean is about things that do not necessarily have to be associated with Lean, such as problem-solving. In a sense, there is essential work at the core that comprises what we do, and this work is necessary but perhaps not altogether unique to Lean, and then there are those characteristics that represent how we do this work; together they comprise the Lean Approach. Lean continually strives to improve value, optimize flow, and eliminate waste. That general statement summarizes core Lean Thinking.

Customer Value

One of the essential indicators of many quality initiatives, and also of Lean, is the importance of customer value. This means that there is a deliberate effort to understand value from the customer's perspective so that products or services that are designed, created, and delivered to customers will truly meet their requirements.

Lean begins by specifying the customer's perception of value for any defined product or service. All operations (processes and activities) are then organized toward the delivery of customer value. Processes and activities typically fall into three categories: (1) those that clearly create value; (2) those that do not create value, but are nevertheless necessary; and (3) those that are neither value-creating nor necessary (the latter constitutes waste). When a customer calls the Help Desk with a service request, for example, perhaps he or she needs a simple password reset. Any time spent directly helping the customer is value adding. Any time spent with the customer to gather information, for example to establish the customer's identity, is certainly necessary, but it does not add value to the customer experience because it doesn't directly help the customer. If you could ascertain this information from their phone number, you would not need to bother the customer with this step. And, of course, as we all know from personal experience, any time spent waiting in the queue is completely nonvalue-adding time, and from the customer's point of view, is waste. It is, after all, not necessary that the customer has to wait.

This focus on customer value is common across all quality management systems. Within Six Sigma, for example, we associate customer value with what is called Voice of the Customer (VOC). With ITIL® (IT Infrastructure Library) there is a similar focus on customer value. The primary delivery component within the ITIL framework is a service. Services are designed with reference to business and customer value, and are defined in business terms rather than IT terms. In this way, IT services are positioned strategically within business service operations. All Service Management lifecycle phases contribute to this alignment between IT and the business in order to ensure the delivery of value.

The key point here is that we need to identify customer value from the customer viewpoint, so whether this is based on formal or informal sensing is perhaps less important than being able to make the connection and continuing to validate this connection as we design and deliver services. From the Lean perspective, we then need to think of each activity in our work processes as making a contribution toward delivering value.

Value Stream Flow

The concept of flow refers to the unimpeded progression of products or services through a value stream. In other words, products or services are created through the value stream without wasteful activities (e.g., unnecessary delays). A value stream can be viewed as the flow of work where customer value is created. Practically any process can be conceived and represented as a value stream. With Lean, problems with value stream flow (e.g., backlogs, bottlenecks, defects) are subjected to analysis, root cause is determined, and fixes are implemented.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a tool for representing value streams and identifying which activities within the flows add value and which do not. In this respect, a typical VSM exercise will often reveal many examples of waste. In general, VSM is used in the framework of an as-is/to-be approach toward improvement (understand the Current, as-is State as a precondition for design of the Future, to-be State). The Current State is represented so that all essential variables of flow are depicted (e.g., throughput time, waiting time, etc.), and the Future State is designed so that problems are addressed and flow is optimized. A value stream map will show both the flow of materials and the accompanying information flows that support production activities. Within IT, of course, information is often the product that is created (and, thus, is analogous to material flow). The derivation of reports based on data analytics from supporting data streams is analogous to a material flow, whereas the messaging that tells us when the reports should be produced, or the databases mined, would be equivalent to an information flow.

Elimination of Waste

Waste is often identified through value stream analysis, where value-added (VA), nonvalue-added (NVA) but necessary, and unnecessary tasks of no customer value are identified. The latter is what we call waste, and we should properly think of waste as a symptom of some underlying problem. Lean works to eliminate waste by understanding the causes of these problems and addressing them. The concept of waste is typically identified in Lean by types of waste, and include the following:

  • Overprocessing: More processing than is necessary to meet customer requirements.
  • Transportation: Moving things unnecessarily from place to place.
  • Motion: Unnecessary movement in performance of a task.
  • Inventory: Too much work-in-progress.
  • Waiting: Delays of any sort, waiting for parts, for resources, for decisions.
  • Defects: Quality imperfections.
  • Overproduction: Producing more of a product or service than is necessary.

There is an often-cited "eighth waste," the waste of human potential that one might associate with the frequent declines in quality that characterize many service delivery operations, and are frequently attributed to poor morale, lack of training, inefficient resource allocation, etc.

When we look at real-world examples of IT operational processes, we often find examples of waste, but sometimes they are not easy to see. This is because it's easy to become habituated to wasteful processes. Indeed, we often become unwitting participants in the very inefficiencies that we casually critique. When individuals talk about waste, they mean it seriously but unscientifically, as in commenting that something is a "waste of time," a "waste of money," or a "waste of talent." In the Lean approach, we apply a more stringent set of criteria to evaluate waste but, in a sense, the bottom line is often the same. We believe that waste in IT operational work is pervasive enough and important enough to deserve some focused attention as a prelude to considering Lean approaches to identifying and eliminating it.

The goal of this exercise in waste identification is to help readers see where it exists around them. Not wishing to be dramatic, but the reader should be forewarned that once one's eyes are opened to the existence of waste, it's not uncommon to be aghast at its pervasiveness, and once sensitized, it's hard to go back. However, it's important to remember that seeing waste is just the beginning. We don't stand dumbfounded and retreat in despair. We view these as problems to solve and opportunities for improvement. Viewed this way, rather than seeing only the pervasiveness of waste, we rather see endless opportunities for improvement.

One of the Lean ways of addressing waste is to do things that will make it more transparent and thereby make it easier to remove. In the manufacturing domain, for example, reduction of inventory is one means by which operational inefficiencies are identified and then eliminated. Less inventory means fewer products are "on hand" and, thus, they must be delivered "just in time." If they are not at their destination when needed, it exposes operational inefficiencies.

Inventory has a less obvious analogy within IT, but it can be viewed generally as referring to any type of work-in-progress (WIP). Within the Help Desk or Service Desk environment of an IT operation, for example, we can view the Service Desk queue, or backlog of incidents (tickets), as WIP. Likewise, we might view incidents in a pending status as another example of WIP. Both of these examples, of course, are commonly accepted within IT operations. They represent, in a sense, business-as-usual activity. Following the Lean approach, we would be encouraged to understand the process dynamics underlying this WIP as a way of addressing systemic problems associated with backlogs, bottlenecks, or defects. Implementing an end-to-end flow of incidents in such a way that we remove the backlog altogether, or reduce all pending incidents to a minimum, might be a rather radical solution for typical Service Desk operations. However, it encourages a line of inquiry that may help to address underlying root causes of these problems.

Continuous Improvement

The quality foundation of Lean is underscored by its emphasis on continuous improvement, aspiring toward perfection. This seemingly unreachable goal underscores the continual aspect of improvement activities and the institutionalization of behaviors that lead to a high quality orientation on the part of all employees (sometimes referred to as Lean Culture). The Lean method that directly supports the aim of Continuous Improvement is called Kaizen (Japanese for continuous improvement). Continuous Improvement is more than just making changes. Continuous Improvement leads an organization into a continuous cycle of learning that aids in adaptation to an environment where change is the norm. It is the difference between saying that it's time to do capacity planning (e.g., once a quarter) and doing capacity planning all the time, while at the same time continuously improving the capacity planning process itself.


1. Womack, J. P., and D.T. Jones. 2003. Lean Thinking. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

Making IT Lean: Applying Lean Practices to the Work of IT presents Lean concepts and techniques for improving processes and eliminating waste in IT operations and IT Service Management, in a manner that is easy to understand. The authors provide a context for discussing several areas of application within this domain, allowing you to quickly gain insight into IT processes and Lean principles. The text reviews IT Service Management, with reference to the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL®) as a framework for best practices—explaining how to use it to accommodate Lean processes and operations. Filled with straightforward examples, it provides enough modeling tools so you can start your Lean journey right away.

About the Authors

Howard Williams is an IT Service Management Consultant in Microsoft's Consulting Services organization, with several years of experience designing and implementing ITSM solutions for a diverse customer population. He is an ITIL® Expert (V3), and has an MBA in Operations Management from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Rebecca Duray is a Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs College of Business. Professor Duray received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and her B.S. and M.B.A from Case Western Reserve University. Her research interests are in the strategic use of operations, mass customization, and Lean Information systems. Prior to obtaining her Ph.D., Professor Duray was a management consultant for various firms including Price Waterhouse and A.T. Kearney focusing on operations and systems issues.