Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Only lean management can save our IT departments

Only lean management can save our IT departments

Marie-Pia Ignace
September 17, 2015

FEATURE - Traditionally seen as the mother of all evil, the IT department in our organizations has a long way to go before it fulfils its potential and becomes an actual facilitator in the delivery of excellent products and services. In the past few years, IT leaders have realized that lean management can help them to transform the function.

Words: Marie-Pia Ignace, President, Institut Lean France

On his first day of work at the HQ of a retail bank in Paris, François walked into the office full of energy and anticipation. He was ecstatic about his new job, and eager to get started.

He was met by his new manager, Antoine. “Bonjour!” he said, “We are very happy to have you. Let me walk you to your desk.” Antoine led François through the office, stopping a couple of times to introduce him to other members of the team. Eventually, they reached an empty desk, with no computer and no telephone. There were only a bundle of cables and a stapler. A rather depressing sight, François thought.

“Oh, shoot! IT must have not seen my note telling them you would be starting today. Let me give them a call, and we’ll get you set up in a moment,” Antoine said apologetically.

François sat on his new chair and waited patiently. Two hours later, Antoine came back and told him IT had just called to say they would set everything up the following day. In reality, it took two weeks for his computer to arrive, be connected to a printer and to the company’s servers.

During those excruciatingly long days, François had to constantly bother his colleagues for information and could do almost nothing. His enthusiasm quickly faded, replaced by frustration and stress.

Why did it take two weeks to set up a computer and email address, which require one hour of IT work at most?

Unfortunately, there are examples of this all around us, which tells us how badly IT needs to change. Our criticism of the heavy bureaucracy and low quality of delivery marring the IT function is further exacerbated by the sense of disconnect that we perceive between our personal experience of IT as users and the professional IT environments in which we work. It has become so easy to install an app on our smartphone, buy a product on Amazon and find music on Spotify; so why can’t we get our IT departments to work?

In recent years, the lean movement has started to explore ways in which IT can deliver better service to its customers, streamline its processes and actually make life easier for people in the organization.

There are three main reasons why IT has started to wake up to the idea that lean can actually do a lot to help.

The first reason is that there is an expectation for IT to deliver better and faster service to its customers. Constant complaints (“This problem wouldn’t occur if IT worked better”) are encouraging IT leaders to review their processes, to really understand where problems lie and what value is, and to embrace PDCA. This often results in an attempt to apply little, iterative changes to the process rather than trying to transform the IT function all in one go, which is terribly costly and hard to manage.

Secondly, CIOs are showing more interest in the lean improvements that are taking place in some many areas of their organizations, and are becoming more willing to participate in the transformation of the business (and perhaps even facilitate it).

Finally, a surge in the number of digital transformations and the consequent need to get digital products (such as apps) to market quickly is focusing the attention of business leaders on shortening lead-times. 

This is a difficult, yet exciting time to be a CIO. With some many problems to address, IT leaders are starting to recognize lean as a way to bring structure to a traditionally complex and disorganized function.


One of the main issues IT faces is the lack of collaboration and a faulty information flow. There is often no clarity over who does what (otherwise, why would seven different people be involved in the simple task of setting up a new computer?) and over customer requirements.

IT departments often come up with a subpar product/service that will require extensive rework and cause severe delays. Additionally, too many people in the process and a bad system to share information lead to a situation in which nobody understands why a problem is occurring.

Lean can greatly contribute to fixing this: by identifying customer value and by unearthing problems and putting them under the spotlight, it makes life easier for everybody in the firm, supporting internal users and allowing for a more positive relationship between them and IT (one based on collaboration and open communication). As a result, productivity increases and the workplace becomes a stress-free environment.

Another problem CIOs must address is reliability. Imagine searching for something on Google, an action we all complete several times each day. There is not a time when Google is not working – in fact many of us would feel completely lost if that ever happened! Yet, for some reason, our companies’ internal IT systems are far from reliable and we have gotten used to having different expectations of what Google can do and what our online banking (for example) can do.

This is a new challenge for IT, and another one that lean can help to tackle: the concepts of jidoka and built-in quality teach us to see every problem as an opportunity to ask ourselves what we can do differently. This way of approaching the work gradually reduces the instability of the system.

There’s more. If it is to really change, IT must learn to deliver projects on time. Here’s an example. I have been working with a company that has been investing a lot of time and resources in developing innovative technology for tablets that their sales representatives can use to present products to potential customers. Earlier this month, over 3,000 sales representatives gathered in Paris to attend the presentation of the new mobile technology. They didn’t know that just sixweeks before, IT had started to drop hints that the new software would not be available in time for the launch and that the only reason why the event did not turn into a complete fiasco is that management put a lot of pressure on the IT department to deliver on time.

It shouldn’t be so difficult, however, and there are a number of organizations out there that are running experiments to get teams to collaborate more effectively and therefore complete projects on time. I am referring to the use of the obeya in IT systems. You will be able to hear more about this at the upcoming Lean IT Summit in Paris, where Malika Mir of Ipsen Pharmaceutical and Nicolas Volck of insurance group AG2R will share what they have learned.

For the past five years, the Lean IT Summit has brought together lean thinkers, agile experts and startups, creating a great environment for learning and networking that inspired several practitioners and leaders to go back to their organizations and give lean IT a go. I encourage you to join us this year.


We need to find a different way to manage IT. At the moment, IT departments have a tendency to organize themselves giving very little responsibility to the highly skilled professionals they employ. Not only do these systems not work; they also kill initiative and creativity, instead of empowering people and building trust between leadership and the rest of the organization.

Lean can provide IT with an alternative approach, characterized by speed, quality management, and people engagement. And let’s be clear, it is the only way we’ll be able to ensure that it doesn’t take nine months to change a button on a website, or two weeks to set up an email account for a new hire.


Marie Pia Ignace photograph
Marie-Pia Ignace is President of the Institut Lean France

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