Blogger: Lyn Robison
The American automotive industry carries with it some eerie parallels for enterprise IT. Given the state of the American auto makers, we probably should not strive to mimic Detroit.
Historically, quality was not the primary concern for American auto makers, production was. As a popular book explains, “Bad parts, when they happened to be noticed, were simply labeled and set aside to be repaired at another time and by another department. The mantra is ‘produce large quantities at all costs and fix problems later.’ As Gary Convis, President of the Toyota, Gerogetown factory, explained: ‘When I was at [an American auto manufacturer], if you didn’t run production 100% of the shift, you had to explain it to Division. You never shut the line off.’” (Jeffrey Liker. The Toyota Way. McGraw-Hill, 2003. page 130.)
Contrast this with Toyota, where production was and is secondary to quality. “Jidoka” is one of the pillars of the Toyota production system. Jidoka means that any worker on the production line has the ability, even the responsibility, to halt the production line whenever they see a quality problem. The production line remains halted until the quality problem is fixed.
Because of the American auto makers’ lack of focus on quality, they have struggled for past three decades to compete with the Japanese auto makers and to produce products that are relevant in today’s marketplace.
Now let's apply these lessons to enterprise IT. What is the primary concern of enterprise IT? Is IT more focused on quality or on production? Cleary, enterprise IT’s focus is production: implementing new applications and IT infrastructure, and performing operational work on existing systems. Metrics in typical IT departments are designed to measure IT production work: project completion and operational uptime. And can you imagine the firestorm that would engulf any IT staffer who dared to put the brakes on an IT project because of a quality issue? As we all know, enterprise IT must never stop the production line that continually builds and runs IT systems! There is no concept of Jidoka in enterprise IT.
Most enterprise IT shops have a hard time even defining quality. In other words, IT people don’t seem to know what quality means! Many IT folks harbor the notion that IT quality involves producing bug-free software or running systems with uptime at five 9’s. In reality, the quality (the fitness for use, the ability to satisfy the customers’ needs) goes way beyond those rudimentary notions.
How does enterprise IT measure its products’ quality, fitness for use, and ability to satisfy the customers’ needs? The answer is that, in general, enterprise IT doesn’t. Enterprise IT, just like our friends in the American automotive industry, has been geared for production at the expense of quality.
If enterprise IT were to begin measuring its quality, how would it go about that? To answer that question, one need only ponder a few basic concepts: What makes an information system useful? Why does the business pay for information systems? What do the customers of information systems need? The answer to all of those questions is “useful business information”.
An information system’s quality is not determined merely by its lack of bugs and its operational uptime. An information system’s quality is determined by the quality, completeness, accessibility, clarity, relevance, accuracy, timeliness, and overall usefulness of the information that it provides. An information system that provides useless information is useless, like an airplane that can’t get into the air -- utterly unable to satisfy its customers’ needs.
I know of lots of people in the IT industry who reject this idea of quality, and who maniacally focus on production instead. In effect, they say to customers, “If you aren’t getting the information that you need out of your existing information systems, let us produce another system for you.” I also know of lots of people in American automotive industry who rejected the idea of quality. They maniacally focused on production, and in effect said to customers, “If you aren’t getting the quality that you need out of your existing American car, let us produce another American car for you.” Eventually, automobile customers went to other sources (such as Toyota) to get high-quality products.
Are customers of enterprise IT going to other sources in an effort to get high-quality information products? You bet they are. Have you ever heard of “shadow IT” and “software as a service”? How about “cloud computing”? I personally know of one division at a large corporation that recently chose a SaaS product just so that they would no longer have to work with their enterprise IT department. Instances of businesspeople going around their IT department by adopting SaaS solutions are commonplace.
We in enterprise IT find ourselves at an interesting crossroads. Do we continue to focus on production at the expense of information quality? Or do we begin to focus on information quality at the expense of production?
When cloud computing finally arrives, I believe the choice might be imposed on enterprise IT. When technology becomes readily available in the cloud, how much demand will there be for those enterprise IT departments that focus needlessly on the production of more technology while neglecting the quality of the information that the technology is supposed to produce?
(Source: Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsgeorge/351029183/)
Those enterprise IT departments could end up looking a lot like Detroit.