You can beat horses; they run faster for a while. – W. Edwards Deming
In the effort to eliminate waste, we might be ready to assume that one of the goals of Lean IT is to eliminate employee “downtime,” thereby maximizing the use of our “human resources.” This sounds to me like a return to good old-fashioned mass-production thinking (though even Frederick Taylor knew that workers could produce more when given frequent breaks). Ethical considerations aside, I believe that this approach is both self-limiting and counter-productive. Even a machine run at full capacity for an extended period of time is more likely to reach a point of diminished output or catastrophic failure. Humans aren’t machines, of course, and when we treat them as if they were, we grossly undervalue their potential and artificially limit ours.
At the heart of the problem may be the way we define waste. Normally, we define waste as any (unnecessary) activity that does not directly provide value to the customer. I suggest that we also consider whether something indirectly adds long-term value to the customer, the employees, or the shareholders. Of course, there is the opposite danger that such a broad definition of value might lead to well-intended justifications for all sorts of unnecessary activities. Nonetheless, I feel that there should be enough “slack” built into the system to accommodate both normal fluctuations in demand and the need for knowledge workers to experiment with new ideas, technologies, and methods.
The exact amount of extra capacity available for these purposes could be adjusted to the demands of the industry you’re in and the technologies you’re using . Obviously, the more dynamic the industry and the technology, the more need there is to continuously learn and adapt. Lean IT is a continuous process of improving capability, not merely reducing costs, and a relentless pursuit of cost savings can lead to the very traps that Lean was created to avoid.