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Lean Improvement: What to Do When Urgent Trumps Important

Published By Geoff Craig

Wouldn’t It Be Great If…

In the world of IT Ops, we face a constant tug-of-war between implementing new technology, keeping the lights on, and resolving unplanned issues. In the thick of our work, we’re constantly generating ideas for how to automate, standardize, and improve our processes (i.e., “Wouldn’t it be great if….”). We know that if we could spend less time trying to keep everything afloat, we could spend more time providing value with new technology. We know the importance of  practicing Lean improvement (Kaizen) — but what do you do when urgent trumps important?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet”? If we don’t take the time to improve our environment, we’ll constantly face the same tedious challenges — and those challenges will keep growing, creating a mountain of technical debt. If we don’t practice Lean improvement, we’ll never be able to reach the level of sustainability or predictability that would make our lives a whole lot easier.

Luckily, because we visualize our work in Planview AgilePlace, we have a place to document our ideas for Lean improvement — which helps us actually do them. Visualizing these ideas alongside our project, maintenance, and break-fix work helps us keep them top of mind, and allows us to find ways to prioritize important improvement work. Keep reading to learn how we balance our Lean improvement efforts with our regular workflow.

Lean Improvement in Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for IT Ops

Unlike planned project work, which has external stakeholders relying on you to deliver results, Lean improvement efforts are easy to let fall by the wayside.

Lean improvement efforts often fall victim to the “out of sight, out of mind” fallacy. If we don’t visualize our ideas for improvement, we’re likely to forget about them (until, of course, we face the same struggle).

Kanban can be a really helpful Lean improvement tool. If we want Lean improvement ideas to be as important as daily work, we need to treat them like we would our daily work: By putting them on a card and placing them in our backlog to be prioritized.

It’s not enough to simply create cards, though. If we want to practice Lean improvement, we need to build a Lean improvement process into our regular workflow. Here are some Lean improvement methods we use so that we make sure we properly manage urgent — and important — work.

Create a Kaizen Lane

First start by creating a lane on your board for ideas. Make sure this lane isn’t your Default Drop lane, because that could affect your analytics report for flow and speed.  Create a Kaizen/Improvement card type.

Record the “Why?” Behind the Idea

Second make sure the idea has a why statement around it.  It’s easy to create a card that says “Make patch management more automated” but that doesn’t explain why you want to improve patch management.  Putting the “why” in the description helps communicate the value of this idea. Without a “why” statement, it’s likely that your improvement ideas will get trumped by more urgent work — we have to effectively communicate the urgency of our improvement work.

For this example, the “why” could be: “Patch Management is a manual process that is prone to errors and takes x hours per month.” “Why” statements help to prioritize ideas, and ensure that anyone reading the card can understand the need you are trying to solve.

Discuss in Standups

Next, dedicate time to discuss Lean improvement (or Kaizen) cards during your standups. If someone on your team has slack time, see if they can pull an improvement card. Discuss how you could break improvement work into smaller increments of value, so the team can begin to experience the value of that work as quickly as possible.

Build In a Staleness Test

Remember that staleness can come into play, so be sure to revisit the Why? behind each idea before implementing it, especially if it has been collecting dust for a while. Don’t let your team fall out of the practice of discussing kaizen cards — in the short term, they may seem less important, but in the long-term, avoiding these opportunities for improvement can lead to significant technical/organizational debt.

Build a staleness test into your Lean improvement process: Create a date for how long a card can sit in your Improvement/Kaizen lane. If the date comes and the card hasn’t moved, delete it. Don’t put it in a backlog board, delete it. If it’s truly important, it will come back.

What to Do When Urgent Trumps Important

The push and pull of IT Ops work can be grueling, and it’s easy to feel discouraged when urgent work seems to always get in the way of the improvement work — which could help eliminate the urgent issues. This is why it is critical for IT Ops teams to learn how to plan, prioritize, and manage improvement work. Start by visualizing improvement work alongside other work. Hide nothing. Communicate the value of your improvement ideas to your team, and make sure those ideas are heard in standups. If an idea becomes stale, delete it to make room for the most pressing improvements. This will help you create a healthier, more stable environment that will ultimately enable you to add more value to your company.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about Lean improvement methods and tools, we recommend these resources:

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Written by Geoff Craig

Geoff is a Senior Automation Engineer at LeanKit, where he works with development teams to continuously deploy new features. Working at LeanKit has helped him pursue his passion of automating all the things. Connect with Geoff on Twitter @GeoffCraig74.