What can IT learn from lean manufacturing?

I just had the opportunity to read the book “Lean Thinking – Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation” by Daniel T Jones & James P Womack. It outlines the ideas behind lean manufacturing and it is highly inspired by the Toyota car production. I work as an IT project manager which is very different from producing cars. The car industry produces thousands of the same model, whereas an IT project is a temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products. However, I still find the book very inspiring. Below are some of the things that inspired me.

One of the core principles is to focus on what creates value for the customer and remove activities that produce waist. I think it is good to frequently ask yourself the question: Am I producing value for my customer right now? Write it on a yellow note and place it where you can see it all the time.

2) Plans

The book states something along the lines of: “Plans are worthless; planning where you understand each other’s strengths and limitations and create a common vision is extremely valuable. Re-planning should be done every 3 months.” As a project manager I don’t agree to all of this. Plans are very good for communicating with all project stakeholders. But I think it is a good observation that the process of planning is extremely important and if you involve the project team, you are more likely to succeed. Re-planning every 3 months, sounds like a good idea. You have a greater chance of succeeding if you scope your portfolio to several 3-6 months projects, than if you have one big project lasting several years.

3) Focus until you are done

The book states that each co-worker should focus on one task until it is completed to a predefined quality standard. Wow if you manage to organize your project work in that way you will be a project manager rock star. Most work environments that I have worked in are not set up for this. Open office spaces make it easy to be distracted. The default settings on your smartphone allow for constant distractions every time something happens on your mail, social media and other apps. Most of the tasks in my projects do not have a predefined quality standard, because it has not been done before. I think you will get happier, more productive people if you can manage to create a work environment where it is possible to focus on one task until you are done.

4) No extra resources are needed

Finally, the book states that if you need extra resources to continue the lean improvements journey you are doing it wrong. You might need an external expert in a period and your people need to be trained, but these costs should quickly be covered by the savings that you make.

What can you do next?

Scrum, Lean startup, PRINCE2 Agile, SAFe and other agile methods have incorporated some of the principles from lean manufacturing. But I can highly recommend to go back and read the lean literature that agile authors got their inspiration from. In a way it is easier to understand lean principles when the case regards real physical warehouses and cars. 

Feel free to comment below. Have you managed to implement lean principles in your work environment?