Because of information technology’s unique role as a support function in most organizations, process improvement means improving both the processes of its internal management system and the business it supports. As a matter of fact, for most organizations today information technology (IT) infrastructure and management is the backbone of all critical processes. Combine that with the idea that that in order to survive, businesses must improve. And consequently, IT must assume the task of driving much of the improvement in business processes as well as improving its own processes. IT needs to continuously improve the way it improves.

To that end, the IT function needs to think of itself (and be perceived as) an investment that enhances the effectiveness of an organization, not simply a function to maintain some consistent level of support. If improvement of the business processes which IT supports is the return on that investment, then the organization has a choice – maintain a current level of return with less investment (reduce or outsource staff) or increase the return at the current investment rate. By continually focusing on enhancing the business rather than simply maintaining it, IT functions will be forced to improve themselves by first adopting a more rigorous focus on the customer.

First, Understanding the Business

IT is a service organization and any service organization is in the business of making its customers successful. Of course, the first step in making this happen is for the IT function to begin to better understand the business it supports. It needs to know the processes, speak the vernacular, feel the pain of their customers. Once IT sees the processes through the customers’ lens, then IT can either support or guide them through the observation, analysis and solution of the problems in the business. Many mechanisms exist for this – DMAIC, DFSS, Lean, LDfSS, Lean Six Sigma, ITIL, CMM, etc. However, the end result remains the same … process improvement.

But just because the ends are well-intentioned does not mean the means produce the right results. Process improvement requires discipline, patience and constancy of purpose. The best solutions are never more complicated than they absolutely have to be and often this means less technology, not more. So the first challenge is to see the business from the customer’s eyes and then combine that view with a problem-solving approach that fixes processes rather than just automating them (to produce defects faster is not a noble endeavor).

Limiting Projects to the Important

The next step is to use the political leverage that IT has by limiting projects to only those that the business has found important enough to study first. That is, resolving problems that the business has defined, measured and analyzed. Why should IT be expected to provide a solution if the business has not taken the time to truly understand the root causes and streamline its own processes as much as possible? Capital should not be allocated to IT projects unless the business executes its due diligence. It can be called “disciplined customer focus”: helping the customer develop a rigorous understanding of its processes before attempting to optimize them with technology.

One best practice is a capital allocation committee that withholds IT project funding until the business units (processes which IT supports) can prove that they understand an issue well enough to develop and document thorough system requirements (with the assistance of IT). These requirements are developed in order to address quantifiable problems with known root causes, ensuring that technology is used to support optimized processes. As a result, the subsequent design and development of technology solutions is enhanced through effective requirements engineering.

Beginning the ‘Virtuous Cycle’

And when this same approach to forcing discipline in the business processes can be applied to non-capital projects, then IT is seen for what it is – not a free resource – and the business will curb its desire to pull IT in conflicting directions simultaneously with projects that do not need to be enhanced with technology. Furthermore, this lends predictability to the output of the IT function which allows IT to build predictability into its own processes. This approach clearly takes discipline and will often require difficult decisions, but in time it creates a “virtuous cycle” (in the figure below) which ultimately enhances the ability of IT to create more solutions.

The Virtuous Cycle
The Virtuous Cycle

Once disciplined customer focus, prioritized projects and valid requirement development are established, then the internal IT processes can be stabilized and self-improvement can begin in earnest. This starts by taking a Lean view and breaking projects into predictable feature delivery sets. This does not mean that the projects themselves are necessarily reduced in scope, it just means that sets of requirements or features are prioritized and grouped into predictable packages that can be delivered quickly. In turn, this produces shorter project cycles and responsive feature delivery. Prioritized features can be better delivered as needed rather than all at once in large packages with long lead times. This project management process with shorter, higher-frequency deliveries enables a tighter interaction with customers and fosters improved process understanding. In turn, the improved process understanding further enables disciplined customer focus which starts the cycle all over again.

Intrinsic Value of the Cycle

Part of the intrinsic value of this cycle is that it naturally promotes internal process improvement through several enhancements including reduction of requirements defects, reduction of task switching, and improved testing. The disciplined customer focus improves the defects through more thorough customer and process understanding, project prioritization and valid requirement redevelopment reduce task switching (which manifests waste in myriad ways), and improved testing results from prioritized feature delivery with the smaller feature sets and shorter learning cycles. All this, in turn, enables better definition, measurement, analysis, improvement and control of issues impacting the project delivery cycle.

Clearly this virtuous cycle is difficult to achieve. In fact, it is a journey not a destination. It requires the commitment to start with a disciplined customer focus and continues with predictable, continually improving internal processes. It employs aspects of Lean and Six Sigma simultaneously and it ensures that the IT function establishes its role as an organizational asset that deserves enhancement rather than a cost of doing business which needs to be minimized.

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