Continuous Improvement IT: Improving Information Flow in Your Enterprise

Previously, we summarized how the five principles of Lean Thinking can and should be applied to the Information Technology (IT). In this post, we take a deeper look at the concept of Flow and how IT departments can better facilitate information flow through their organizations.

Through a Value Stream Map, Lean practitioners all know that you map the information flow at the top of the map and that information flows backwards from the customer to the supplier relative to the product flow on the map. The Lean Enterprise Institute has a good graphic of this flow here.

Considering Information Flow

However, Value Stream Maps, while successfully documenting what information flows, do not always call out information flow itself as an opportunity for improvement. In other words, we focus our Lean efforts on improving product flow without understanding that the flow of information may be a major culprit of waste. IT leaders, however, have a real opportunity to help their companies’ flow of information by taking a better look at the map and figuring out how to minimize lead time of information flow to better assist with product flow. Here are some specific areas where information flow can be optimized:

1. Minimizing Paper.  How many firms have implemented expensive software applications with the goal of minimizing paperwork, only to find that new forms for data collection keep popping up? Why? Probably because we either 1) aren’t capturing the correct information for some reason, or 2) it’s too darn hard to get the information out of the technology beast we’re feeding.

It’s much easier to put another piece of paper at the workstation and implement another manual Excel-based compilation process than to get IT to capture the correct information. It is up to IT to change this paradigm; adding fields to modern systems is much easier than it once was. So is data extraction and report automation, which leads me to my next point.

2. Automating Reporting. This one resonates particularly with me. In my experience, a major disruption to the flow of information lies in the amount of time it takes to extract data, compile it in Excel, create graphs and charts, and then communicate it out to those who need to know, usually through a scheduled staff meeting, another email in the inbox, or posting on a bulletin board in a conference room where the intended recipient is unlikely to go.

Reporting solutions have come a long way from the archaic behemoths of the past. They are easier to connect to data sources, easier to query, fully automated, and provide up-to-the-minute information on a mobile device. Oh, and the price tag is much lower, too. You want your people easily digesting and reacting to information, not creating it. If your organization’s reporting solution is still based on analysts crunching numbers in Excel, you should really take a look at why. The past excuses attributed to bloated, complicated Business Intelligence software are starting to lose their validity.

3. Alerting. IT departments love the alerting features they get with their own software. Network management solutions provide alerts when traffic is degraded or circuits are down. Servers send messages when there are issues with power, temperature, or software updates. IT should apply these technologies they love to their operations processes. Process control software can alert operators if machinery is experiencing an out of standard condition. New reporting tools can alert you when you are in danger of missing a customer order or running low on raw materials. Just be careful with this one; you don’t want to cause too many alerts or you run the risk of overcorrection or simply of people not paying attention to the alerts at all.

4. Customer and Supplier Integrations. Integration technologies have been around for decades (think X12 EDI) and are only becoming easier and easier to implement. Yet it is amazing how many companies fail to take advantage of this. Think of supplier integration to automate replenishment ordering or customer integrations to automate sales order processing, invoicing, and scheduling. Hint: get your sales teams onboard with the idea of customer integrations as it potentially increases switching costs!

IT, Get Involved

In each of these examples above, new technologies have made it easier for information to flow throughout the entire value stream. But the technology can only be implemented if the IT department can see the value it brings to their organizations. To see this, IT needs to be involved in their company’s operations. Get out to your company’s workspaces, talk to co-workers, try to understand where faster information delivery helps the end customer. Then work with your business partners to make things better.