What IT Can Learn From Manufacturing

May 26, 2009

 Background

A long time ago, or at least what seems like a long time ago, in the U.S., Manufacturing was King. For companies whose primary product was manufactured, manufacturing, along with finance, dominated discussions.  There was little concern for quality, cost, or customer service.  The customers would get what they got (and like it), and any additional costs incurred would simply be passed along in the price of the product.  Life was good!

Slowly, however, things started to change.  As other countries began to emerge from the post-WW II economies, they began to develop their own infrastructure, and were actively seeking techniques to improve quality and productivity.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., it was business as usual, and many felt these pesky little countries were no match for the mighty U.S. industrial base.  Quality experts like Deming and Juran, seeing the error in this line of thinking, pleaded their ideas to senior management before it was too late.  They were cast aside.

So they went to Japan, whose leaders were hungry for ways to improve quality and increase productivity.  They were able to implement these techniques through diligent work with much success.  Eventually, they began to take a foothold in the U.S. and their products became very successful.

Savvy U.S. manufacturers looked at what was going on and began to change their thinking and their organizations.  The traditional organization’s operations, with its command and control structure, siloed departments, mass-production mentality with its associated lack of flexibility, had to change.  Some organizations made the transformation while others did not, and are no longer in business.

Because of the “sudden” insurgence of foreign competition (not really, but few were paying attention to notice), managers took drastic steps to remain competitive – like outsourcing either entire manufacturing operations, or parts of operations.  Sometimes this worked, sometimes due to supply chain and other issues, it was less than successful. 

Next, and for those whose products and structure precluded them from outsourcing, came implementation of Lean manufacturing / Toyota Production System (TPS) concepts, along with several reorganizing by product or service.  This transformation continues to this day.

IT Comparison

So, what does this have to do with IT?  Well, when you look at IT in enterprise organizations, a lot.

One of many ways to look at it is to ask, “In an enterprise, what is the purpose of IT?  What does IT really do?”  In its simplest form, IT processes data to become usable information so it can be utilized in decisions to help the business.  In this way, IT is much like a factory that processes data and turns it into information.

Of course, the way it processes data varies greatly.  Sometimes it functions simply as a conduit, as in email.  A supplier (user) types a note on an application and presses SEND.  At that point, IT takes the email and processes it to a customer (also a user) who opens the email and makes a business decision based on the information it contained (act on it, do nothing, delete, etc.).  Sometimes IT is a storage facility that stores and inventories products (files) for later use by customers.  A supplier (user) sends a product (file) to IT for storage (server).  When a customer (user) needs the file, they order it from IT (click to open), and IT delivers the product to the customer.  Other times, IT functions as a true manufacturer and creates product.  A supplier has a need to solve a business problem and there is an IT product (application) that can help.  The supplier presents the build specs and IT produces the application either by building it with its own resources (development) or by outsourcing production to a specialist (purchase software).  IT then delivers it to the customer for use, and provides customer service (help desk) as well.

Now, there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes in the IT Factory to deliver these products and services, and the way IT Factories go about delivering these vary by organization.  As was the case in manufacturing during the mass-production hey-days, where factories were aligned by departments (Stamping, Machining, Finishing, Assembly, Shipping, etc.), many IT Factories are aligned by function (Hardware, Software, Network, Storage, Server, Support, etc.).  In the traditional IT Factory, every application has its own server, storage, and support group all within and aligned by each of the functional areas.  Changes and new requests must pass through each of the functional areas before moving to the next, with the occasional concurrent processes.  Since the organization was probably already structured in a hierarchical way, it only made sense for IT to follow this structure.

But things are changing, and changing quickly.  If the rate of change in manufacturing was linear, in IT it is exponential (see figure 1).

Mfg IT Change Rate

However, in a slight difference from manufacturing, the change IT enterprises are experiencing is not necessarily driven by outside competition, but by the technology itself.

Applications have gone from being developed in-house (highly specialized ones still will need this), to being purchased off the shelf and installed on the companies servers, to being available as a service (SaaS).  Storage and Networks (along with Applications) that used to require separate physical machines have gone from 1:1 to 1:many with the implementation of virtualization technologies and the advent of the cloud.  Mini-factories (desktops) that are supported by maintenance personnel (desktop support) who had to be dispatched remotely to solve customer (user) problems or make changes can now be fixed remotely with desktop virtualization technologies.

In essence, IT as we have known it in the enterprise is slowly becoming obsolete unless it develops new approaches and skills to support the business.  It’s not a question of whether the current work that is being performed will still be needed, it’s a matter of scope and scale.  There will still be a need for networking, hardware, storage, etc. personnel, just not as many (in the enterprise).

This leaves two choices for IT leaders.  They can either support these new technologies, figuring out how to best utilize them in their organization, or resist them and continue to maintain the status quo.  The problem with resisting them is they will eventually catch you and your organization.

IT Reaction

IT needs to use these transformative technologies to fundamentally change the way it does business, much in the same way that manufacturing embraces Lean and cellular manufacturing concepts and techniques.  IT needs to transform from a provider of technology to a provider of service that utilizes technology.  It needs to become the de facto expert at applying technology to improve the business and business processes, ensuring all the while its actions are aligned with the overall corporate strategy.

Time is of the essence.  Organizations need to review the technology available and determine not only how that technology will enable them to improve operating costs, but also how it will help them improve the service they provide to the business.  The opportunity is ripe for IT to take a true leadership role in helping change and improve the business.  History has shown us where the consequences for inaction lead.

 Mfg IT Then and Now

 

Let me know your thoughts!

Glenn Whitfield

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Why Private Equity Needs Performance Improvement

May 15, 2009

 

It wasn’t too long ago, Private Equity firms could purchase a company, do ”financial” engineering, and sell the asset for a nice profit in a relatively short time frame. It provided a nice quick return on their investment.

Well, times have changed. Although many firms would like to sell, they are finding that adequate liquidity does not exist. This presents a conundrum for investors. The traditional method won’t work in these economically uncertain times. Maybe it’s time for a new approach.

Here’s the issue: The P/E firm has an asset, one that it may have had for a while. With the economy, the traditional model won’t work – the asset won’t be sold any time soon. Given that and the need to get some value from the asset, a focus on operational performance improvement should be taken.

Just like many other industries whose traditional operating practices have slowed, it’s time for Private Equity to look to a dedicated and structured Performance Improvement approach, and some firms, like Alvarez and Marsal, have recently started their own internal PI groups to address this need. But, what is Performance Improvement? While there are many definitions out there, I’ll define PI as an approach that evaluates and measures a process, identifies improvement opportunities, provides an improvement plan, and executes the plan to achieve the new process. The process can be evaluated at a strategic or tactical level. The scope will depend on the problems to be solved, and the time available to improve. The key to a successful PI initiative is having top management support and active involvement in the improvement activities by the people actually performing the process.

So why not just hire some consultants to assist with this? Well, a firm can start with consultants, and make quick impacts, but it will not have the flexibility or consistent approach that is needed to address the long term. By having a dedicated internal Performance Improvement group, a firm can has these benefits:

• Dedicated and Flexible resources that can easily be moved to different assets in the portfolio

• A consistent approach to PI that can be communicated throughout the firm

• A culture of continuous improvement can be cultivated

• Additional resources with operations backgrounds that can be utilized to assist in what may be considered ‘non-PI’ activities

• The ability to contract out PI resources to firms that have not made the investment in a dedicated PI group, but need the skill set

With this type of approach, it’s more important that members of the PI group have a broad understanding of business and systems thinking, and be experienced in facilitation along with the tools of Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints (TOC) than be experts in the process being improved. This is valuable because by using a Kaizen (or Rapid Improvement Event) model, the process experts are already in the room (the ones who do it every day), leaving the facilitator to be able to apply the appropriate improvement tools and techniques, and be able to ‘ask the dumb questions’ which typically lead to breakthrough ideas and actions.

Those firms that embrace this methodology will find themselves well positioned as economic conditions improve to make substantial gains.

If you want to discuss further how to get going, drop me a line.

Glenn Whitfield


Creating a Necessary Dependence – An IT Business Alignment Whitepaper

May 6, 2009

 

Over the past several months, I have written several posts about the issues facing IT Business Alignment, a need to create a dependence between IT and the Business, and an emphasis on taking a process centric approach to the issue.

I decided to consolidate that into a white paper, which is now available. 

It’s not sponsored by a large software or hardware company, but does present an approach offered by my company (New Age Technologies) to help an organization move toward IT Business Alignment by focusing on a process to be improved, then understanding how it’s infrastructure and technology can help that process.

Please feel free to leave any comments about the paper at this post, or you can email me at the address on the paper.

I hope you enjoy!

Whitepaper:  Creating a Necessary Dependence: A Process Centric Framework for IT Business Alignment

 

Thanks!

 

Glenn Whitfield