Lean IT Fundamentals and Principles


This article describes basics about Lean IT. The roots of Lean IT are - as the name suggests - in Lean Management. The basic principles of Lean Management had been developed in Toyota's Production System, that was built back in the 40s of the last century. Lean IT is really nothing new, but as an application or adaptation of the basic principles of Lean Management to software development and maintenance the topic not commonly known. The two key elements of Lean IT are the avoidance of waste and continuous improvement process. [1, 2, 3]

Lean Transformation

The introduction of lean in a company is also known as Lean Transformation Program. Because it is a big organizational and cultural change, Lean IT is not only the introduction of a single methodology. A Lean Transformation requires actions in several dimensions. The approach of McKinsey considers the following example (4 +1) dimensions: [4]

    1. Mindset and Behaviour,
    2. Process Efficiency,
    3. Performance Management,
    4. Organisation & Skills und
    5. Voice of the Customer.

For each of these dimensions, there is a number of tools, methods and approaches. As part of a Lean Transformation, these are introduced and performed in each single unit/team of the company. The transformation of a working unit/team usually takes between 3-4 months. Afterwards, a continuous improvement process will be set up, to keep the status quo and even get further improvements.

Lean IT Principles

Steven C. Bell describes in his book 'Lean IT, Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation' following nine principles and/or elements of Lean IT: [5]

    1. Respect for People,
    2. Pursuit of Purpose,
    3. Constancy of Purpose,
    4. Proactive Behavior,
    5. Quality at the Source,
    6. Voice of the Customer,
    7. Flow/Pull/JiT,
    8. System Thinking und Culture.

Figure 1 shows some of the most important dependencies and relations.

Figure 1: Lean IT principles overview and dependencies

Relationship with Agile Development Methods

Agile software development methodologies (e.g. SCRUM, XP) and Lean IT are very similar and this is no coincidence, because many of the agile methods and paradigms have their roots in Lean Management.

There are some important differences:

  1. The popular agile development approaches are highly tailored to self-organizing team. It can work great, if the team members are suitable for self organisation. Lean IT is not based on a self-organizing teams, this means that under Lean IT also classic leadership structures work well.
  2. Agile methods are usually limited to insulated working teams and/or composites oft co-located teams. Lean IT is more of an enterprise approach. This is a great advantage, but there is a risk that Lean IT fails for the entire company.
  3. Lean IT can be used outside of the actual software development and software maintenance. This is especially true for infrastructure units.

Despite all the differences, both approaches have in common is that they try to (i) increase productivity and customer orientation (ii) by means of a continuous improvement process (iii) to achieve increased customer benefits.


[1] Toyota-Produktionssystem; Wikipedia; (Stand 2. August 2011);


[2] Lean Management; Wikipedia; (Stand 2. August 2011);


[3] Lean IT; Wikipedia; (Stand 2. August 2011);


[4] The time is right for lean in payments; (2009);


[5] Steven C. Bell and Michael A. Orzen; Lean IT, Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation;

Productivity Press; (2010); ISBN-13: 978-1439817568