The release of ITIL 4 showed that Lean is as relevant as ever. With its emphasis on value streams and delivering value, ITIL 4 is firmly rooted in Lean philosophy. But what is Lean? And how can it help you improve your service management?

What is Lean?

In a nutshell: Lean is a mindset. With Lean, the aim is to optimize the delivery of customer value and make work processes as efficient as possible. To do so, you need an environment that helps you achieve these goals.

One of the earliest and most famous examples of Lean – although it wasn’t called Lean yet – comes from Henry Ford. By 1913, Henry Ford had done everything he could to truly integrate the entire production process of the Model T. For example, the car was only available in one model and one colour so that the production process would run predictably.

In its current form, Lean has been around since the 1950s when Toyota came up with the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota worked out – to the smallest detail – every step in the car production process in order to maximize efficiency.

An even earlier example of a lean approach is the McDonald’s Speedee Service System. Back in 1948, the kitchens were already designed so that every action and step in the process would take place as efficiently as possible. Today, staff instructions still include exactly how many slices of pickle and drops of sauce should go into each hamburger. And for how many seconds the meat should be grilled on each side.

What’s the difference between Lean and Agile?

Although Agile and Lean are related, they are definitely two different things. Both methodologies involve a mindset, a way of looking at service provision.

The biggest difference is the goal. The aim of Agile is to make your organization flexible so that you can respond quickly to changing circumstances. Lean focuses more on working effectively and efficiently. The aim is to eliminate everything that is unnecessary. This means you can deliver your customer’s product/service at the right time, with the right quality and at the right price.

The 5 principles of Lean

Lean methodology tells us that to improve service delivery, you need to follow 5 steps:

  1. Identify value: determine what delivers value to your customer. This is the starting point for discovering what parts of your service delivery you want to improve.
  2. Map the value stream: map all the steps needed to deliver the identified customer value. Visualize the steps that make up your process. Every step should deliver value.
  3. Create flow: ensure the process runs quickly and smoothly. Make sure everything runs in tight sequence by eliminating unnecessary steps and reducing wait times.
  4. Establish pull: make sure your product/service is delivered only when the customer requests it, and always on time. Deliver what your customer requests: not more – but definitely not less!
  5. Seek perfection: always seek perfection. Repeat the process and continue to do so until you achieve perfection. Structure your organization such that your teams are encouraged to seek new ideas for continuous improvement.

The main focus is on eliminating waste in the process. Lean defines 8 types of waste, ranging from overproduction to excessive inventory. And from long wait times to not using people’s talents and skills optimally.

In addition, Lean provides many tools and techniques for tackling these forms of waste. One of the best known is the DMAIC approach: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. DMAIC provides different techniques for eliminating waste in every step of the process: from a project charter in the Define phase to a Kanban board in the Control phase.

Lean Service Management

But what is Lean Service Management? We don’t have one generally accepted definition. The key factor is that in everything you do, you must ask yourself: Why are we doing this? What value does it add for the customer?

An increasing number of organizations are adopting a Lean approach to service management. Why?

Partly because more and more enterprises are going agile in a quest for greater flexibility. If you want to replace your enterprise’s antivirus software quickly, it doesn’t help if you first have to take 26 steps and then go through 3 authorization rounds.

A complicating factor is that your customers’ expectations have risen. If you can order a laptop at home and have it in one day, why should it take 4 weeks to do the same thing for your work? Such rising customer expectations are forcing organizations to reduce processing times.

Finally, we have the arrival of ITIL 4: its strong links to Agile have led to renewed interest in Lean.

Lean defines 8 types of waste, ranging from overproduction to excessive inventory. And from long wait times to not using people’s talents and skills optimally.

Lean IT Service Management in practice

So how does Lean ITSM work in practice? Here are two examples from organizations I’ve worked for.

Case: approval no longer needed for every expenditure

At a government agency I worked for, the rule was that for every purchase – no matter how small – a request had to be submitted and approved. The products you were allowed to order and who was responsible for approval depended on your role and the purchase amount. The approval sheet you had to use to get everything sorted out was complicated.

Together with the service desk, I implemented two improvements.

First, we automated the entire process for finding out who is responsible for approval. Based on your profile, the self-service portal now displays the products you can order. And an approval request is automatically sent to the right person.

In addition, we examined the products to be registered and approved. What if we no longer registered small purchases? Would it be okay to purchase some products without approval? What risks would this entail? For example, we decided that products costing less than 100 euros no longer had to be registered. This resulted in significant time savings and had virtually no adverse effects.

With a few process improvements like the ones described above, the government agency ultimately made administration savings amounting to 2 FTEs. The cycle time for change requests was reduced and staff had to perform fewer tedious tasks.


Case: a backlog of 180 change requests

I worked for a leasing company where compliance was a very high priority. The guidelines of the German mother company were strict: every task had to be recorded. And every non-standard request became a change request and had to be assessed by the CAB.

The problem was that there were far too many requests for the teams to handle. At one time there were 180 change requests waiting in the backlog. On average, it took six months to implement a change after it was requested. Even a relatively simple change like modifying a standard report could take several months to implement.

Working with the leasing company’s IT department, I improved the flow at various points in the process. Let me explain one of them: the leasing company differentiated between small, medium and large changes. And even the small changes were still relatively complex. Every small change first had to be assessed by a business analyst. After this, more than twenty activities had to be performed before implementation.

One of our solutions was to introduce a ‘mini-change’ category for all changes that would take 0 to 20 hours to resolve. For mini-changes, we only wanted to perform the activities that were strictly necessary to fulfil the mother company’s compliance requirements.

Ultimately, we were left with only five activities. And the average cycle time was reduced to two working days. The mini-changes didn’t have to be approved. They could be carried out immediately and met the stringent compliance requirements. This meant that small changes could be handled and implemented much faster.

Your first quick win

Do you want to take the first step towards Lean Service Management? Examine all the transfer moments and wait times in your process. In my experience, this is where most waste is found.

Waste at transfer moments is quite easy to prevent. The more transfer moments you have, the more time your team has to spend on documenting, familiarizing and discussing. And teams spend a lot of time waiting for each other, which causes long delays. Moreover, for a good customer experience you don’t want four different people trying to help a customer who then has to explain their problem anew each time.

So: examine where there is waste in your processes. What steps are involved? Are all these steps really necessary? If you can simplify or even eliminate even one of these steps, you’ll be on your way to Lean Service Management.

Want to learn more about Agile Service Management?

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