When Lean IT and People Collide

Lean can be described as doing as much if not more with less. Lean IT is the process of streamlining processes, production equipment and people to eliminate waste and maximize utilization. Lean IT promises to reduce waste, save money and curtail utility costs. However, Lean IT can collide with human nature.

Rotating personnel between different work sites and job functions help them build connections within the organization and learn new things. When an individual volunteers for this experience, the company and the person benefit if the person then stays on a number of years. This can also backfire if it is done by force. Imagine a manager saying, “We’re going to develop our people, rotating them between sites and job positions. You’re going to California.” Someone who has responsibilities in the local area may quit instead of being forced to relocate. Someone who values schedule flexibility may not take kindly to be pushed into working evenings, weekends or overtime like the stereotypical system administrator.

If the same person can do two jobs, they may save the company money if they can do both jobs interchangeably as work loads demand. Asking the same person to do two jobs simultaneously for the same pay check can overload that person, if you end up demanding two full time jobs out of one full time person.

“Go learn another skill to become more productive.” Personal development helps the person and can help the company when properly implemented. Witness the companies that improved employee skill sets and loyalty through internships, paid training, college reimbursement and continuing education opportunities.

However, people do not rapidly rise up the knowledge chain. A nursing assistant can answer basic health questions, but you don’t say that they should “come up to speed” and learn surgery in the next few weeks. When you suddenly need stitches, you want the expert who knows how to do it right. Demanding that the least qualified person perform the work, typically in the most stressful time, is the worst possible decision. The equivalent scenario in IT is demanding that a technical writer or software requirements liaison learn Unix or Windows systems administrator to avoid hiring another system administrator or outsource off-hours support at a higher price.The cost savings and employee’s education seem to be an excellent Lean IT project until someone who is new to IT administration makes a mistake, requiring significant time by an expert to fix.

Too few system administrators in your server farm leads to shortages of help when you need it the most. When your IT administration load goes up, such as during a software upgrade or system migration, is when you need help. If you attempt to keep the IT admin staffing lean, you force the administrator to choose between the major task and day to day support. In the end, one task is short-changed or both tasks are done half-heartedly. If the Lean solution is asking one person to work 80 hours a week to fill two 40 hour a week jobs, exhaustion or hurrying will cause quality to suffer.

ISO standards for IT require system audits be performed by someone other than the system administrator who maintains it. If you have too few IT administrators, you could end up with two system administrators signing off the other’s work or asking a manager who knows little about the system to sign off.

Requesting users and engineers to perform testing can speed up testing cycles and reveal bugs that wouldn’t be found by the standard test procedure or automated testing. Eliminating professional testers and relying too heavily on busy users or automated testing can lead to inadequate application testing or insufficient documentation of problems found.

Insufficient redundancy in personnel creates an emergency when someone decides to retire by a specified date to maximize retirement benefits. There may not be enough time to teach a replacement, fully document rarely performed tasks or find someone with similar skills before the expert is gone.

In summary, keep human nature in mind when planning Lean IT projects. When people and Lean IT collide, both the individuals involved and the organization as a whole suffer.


  1. Tamara – I respectfully disagree with your characterization of Lean IT. Lean fundamentally begins with the principle of “respect for people” and emphasizes the development of peoples’ capabilities, and cross training of people and teams to spread knowledge and capability. Unfortunately in these economic times many IT organizations have focused on cost cutting – eliminating people, projects and services (understaffing, trying to do the same wasteful work with fewer people) and they call it “lean” – and unfortunate use of the term. Lean focuses on the elimination of waste – which means people learn to do less of that which does not add value, which naturally increases capacity, improves quality and speed, and often naturally results in cost reduction.

    • I agree. In well thought out Lean IT projects, waste is eliminated; the fat is cut but not the muscle. In the current economic recession, Lean is often used as an axe to cut anything not producing an amazing ROI.

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