Theory of Constraints in IT: Keeping Busy, but Adding No Value?

A good conversation this week with some IT folks, talking about how Lean principles apply to IT work.

The specific topic was the Theory of Constraints, and the example used was optimization of a production line. To fully optimize the whole line, it’s entirely probable that we will be underutilizing a specific workstation. If we optimize every workstation (point optimization), we will build up WIP inventory at the slower points – therefore generating waste.

Women drill press operators in 1942
Lean manufacturing in IT?

For people on your IT team, “building up inventory” translates to working on projects of low-priority, creating “next steps” work that appears on the next person’s To-Do list – work that the other folks just can’t get to.

The trick is to understand that it’s okay for any one resource to be underutilized. One workstation stands idle, but overall output is optimized with the least amount of waste. The problem is that for most people, it’s very hard to allow yourself to be idle. It just doesn’t seem right; time is precious, and you don’t want to appear expendable.

So how do Lean operations deal with the idle time? By cross-training operators to work different positions on the line, increasing capacity at the constraints. Heck, they can perform cycle counts, train on new operations, even grab a broom and clean up – as long as they aren’t generating waste.

For IT staff in non-constrained areas, this might translate to:

  • crosstraining to understand other technologies, especially for those areas that are resource constrained – so you can pick up the to-do slack for technical areas that are doing too much
  • experimenting and learning new technologies, for future projects
  • answering help desk calls and performing support tasks to keep business operation humming

The danger, of course, is that the work we generate to fill in this “slack time” time can sometimes becomes a “priority”, that has to be finished before the real work. If you can monitor this, and get good supporting work done while waiting for the constrained tasks in your projects, you can truly optimize IT work in a Lean way.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.