Apply lean methods to green your IT operation

Many of the changes needed to "green" our IT departments aren't new. Nearly all of the required changes are those we would make by following the quality-control concept of "lean" systems. Lean seeks to eliminate work within a process that doesn't add value. Green looks for waste in a process that impacts the environment. Often, they require the same changes.

Take for a moment IT asset management. This encompasses all of the equipment supported by the IT department for the company's benefit. A lot of capital is tied up in those boxes full of toxic materials. The most expensive and wasteful excess inventory is the stockpiling of spare electronic parts. Sometimes individual IT technicians purchase repair parts to keep on hand "just in case" a critical device fails and the company can't tolerate the delay of even an overnight shipment. After some time, these unused devices are declared obsolete and thrown away. What a tragedy -- never used, and now in the toxic waste stream!

Electronic parts, like vegetables, don't improve with age. Instead, they corrode, are damaged through handling and slowly deteriorate. To be lean and green, you need to determine the actual number of parts needed to be kept on hand based on historical usage (found in help desk tickets). The help desk team can identify parts that must be kept on hand because they are too difficult to obtain on short notice.

To find these idle parts, search everywhere in the IT workspace and in the end-user areas as well. Personal caches can be found in closets, filing cabinets, desks, boxes and warehouse corners. Look high and low, especially the top shelves of warehouse racks. Consolidating all of this material at a single, central issue point will reduce the number of items kept on hand. In the short term, the company saves money by drawing from this stockpile before ordering more components. In the long term, the company lowers its impact on the environment by reducing the number of parts that are never used -- and end up in the waste stream.

Another common type of waste is overproduction. It occurs when more of something is created than the customer needs. For example, if a customer occasionally asks for a fourth copy of a report, the print room operators may always print four copies of the report. Although this saves the operators from the occasional interruption to print an additional copy, most of the time, the fourth report is simply thrown away.

IT examples of overproduction might include printing detailed reports when only the summary pages are needed; printing too many copies of a form, such as a user ID request; or installing a PC for every seat in a training room when classes never fill the room. Each of these is an example of a "push" delivery of resources we think the customer needs. A greener approach is a "pull" system, in which something is purchased or created only after the customer signals a need for it. The user ID form, for example, should be printed as needed rather than printed in advance, waiting for someone to need one.

Overproduction often disguises other problems in a process. For example, the print room shouldn't print 5,000 inventory labels to get 2,000 that are usable because the bar code is sometimes unreadable. The source of the problem needs to be isolated and fixed.

While green is a relatively new idea, it shares much with process improvement techniques developed over the past 50 years. Apply lean techniques to not only reduce waste in a process, but also to make it greener. If you are lean, you are most likely green.

Webber is a senior project manager at Insight Corp. and a senior adjunct faculty member of DeVry University's Keller Graduate School of Management. He can be reached at Wallace is vice president of application engineering at Result Data. He can be reached at

Webber and Wallace are co-authors of the upcoming Green Tech: How to Plan and Implement Sustainable IT Solutions, as well as Quality Control for Dummies and IT Policies and Procedures: Tools and Techniques That Work.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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