IT is Waste

IT equals wasteTim Jahr wrote a comment on the blog after listening to Bruce Wilson and me on a recent Chit Chat Across the Pond. I’d like to read his comment to you for a couple of reasons. First that I agree with most of what he said, and I’d also like to clarify with the context I should have added. During the conversation with Bruce, I referred to IT as waste. Here’s what Tim wrote:

I was bummed to hear you throw out the old line about IT being “waste”.

I do understand that it does not in and of itself generate a profit, but the filing of things like IT and Maintenance as waste or some kind of financial drain, to me, contributes to the mindset that we see in many executives (and employees of other departments) where IT and these groups are viewed as unimportant or not worth listening to. It’s how we get into the very scenarios you referenced where something like WannaCry is released, and is able to do huge damage because things like patching servers or having good backups are “waste” generated by the IT department.

Not to mention that most companies would have a hard time making their products if they had no Internet access, no network, no security in place, had to build their own computers, etc. I know “support” departments like IT aren’t what directly make the profits, but without them, it’d be pretty difficult to run your company or make a profit.

There’s a healthy balance to strike of doing what’s necessary to help engineers and sales people do their job, but not letting them have whatever they want if it’s going to open up your company to ransomware, having their email servers blacklisted, or having no backups for when an engineer or salesperson “accidentally deleted a whole directory worth of critical data”.

I can’t speak for every IT person, but I personally don’t need to be championed or celebrated, or really even publicly acknowledged for doing my job. I actually kind of enjoy the anonymity and keeping the things running that everyone expect to always run. But when we’re called waste, or a “cost center”, or even just encounter the attitude that we’re trying to prevent others from doing their job, it’s really disheartening.

I’m so glad Tim wrote in regarding my flippant comment about IT being waste. His points are spot on and I do not disagree with anything he said. IT is a critical service to the success of any company. It’s not enough to hire capable network and security engineers, they must be adequately funded and supported by management to be able to succeed at securing the company’s assets. No better example of that is Yahoo, where from what I understand they had a competent staff, but they were not only not supported, but mocked by management. They were referred to as “the paranoids”. With a culture like that, it’s not surprising that Yahoo was hacked and lost 1 billion user accounts.

I spent 24 of my 35 years of gainful employment providing IT services, so I absolutely understand the problems with looking at IT as waste, and especially seeing it as a cost center. Now let me explain the context that I should have included in my “waste” statement.

Many years ago I took a Six Sigma class where we learned many techniques to evaluate the value of steps and processes in our business. We were learning to identify waste, in order to streamline our operations. Anything that did not add value to the end product was waste.

In that class, I asked a clarifying question about something specific my IT function provided, and the instructor answered me by explaining that everything my organization did was waste. My reaction was exactly as Tim describes here, and I began to argue with him, and basically derailed the class for about 40 minutes (of a 4 hour class).

At the end of that 40 minutes, I was bought in hook line and sinker that IT does not add value to the end product and thus is waste.

I think I can explain by a real life example. Back in the day, let’s say a program needed a server. The engineer would work with our system admin to determine their need in terms of RAM, CPU, disk space and network connectivity. The engineer would communicate these requirements to their organizational coordinator to ensure funding was available. That coordinator would circle back to us, the IT organization. We would contact the hardware vendor and get a quote for the product.

We would then generate a purchase order for the hardware. The hardware would be built and shipped to us, where shipping personnel would move it to our lab. Our system admin would unpack the boxes, set up the hardware and install the operating system and required software.

Now let’s look at how someone gets a server today. In the outside world at least, you can go to a site like Digital Ocean or Linnode, use some pulldowns to choose how beefy you need your hardware, choose to have them install the OS or you, and about 6 minutes later (accounting for 3 minutes to find your credit card), you’re working on your new server.

It’s hard to look at the work that was done in the old school example and say it wasn’t waste, isn’t it? If in an ideal condition, the work didn’t even have to be done, then that work is waste.

Unless IT is part of the actual product you’re selling, the work done by IT doesn’t make your end product faster, more accurate, have better features, lighter, or stronger. Again, if your product includes IT services, like say a cloud component and servers that house that cloud service, then the IT part is not waste. But if IT is there to help your employees go faster, make products less expensive, maintain your company’s intellectual property (see Sony hack), and maintain the privacy of your employees’ health and social security data, then it IS waste.

I absolutely know how hard it is to get this concept, but once you own the concept that everything you do is waste, it frees you to think of ways to not just speed up or streamline your processes, but rather find ways to work yourself out of a job. Scary thought, isn’t it?

6 thoughts on “IT is Waste

  1. Jim Sewell - June 10, 2017

    I see your point, but what about companies like the one you retired from that have security concerns Digital Ocean can’t address? At my company they say if you aren’t helping a customer you should be helping someone who is. IT helps those who are. We sell tickets to tours and if a ticketing computer goes down that is serious money lost every minute until IT gets it fixed.

    They are not a profit center, but most companies without them won’t have any profits at all so I propose that the instructor was simply engaging in semantics games.

    As a potential victim of the hack of government security clearance information a while back it surprises me to hear you say that an IT department who is there to maintain the security of employee data is a waste. I don’t think that is wasteful at all and that kind of thinking is why so many are under-funded and under-appreciated because most Cxx’s agree.

  2. Steve - June 10, 2017

    Jim, “waste” has multiple meanings and is a somewhat loaded term. Allison is using the term waste from a Six Sigma perspective only and you are using the term from a more general perspective. In the world of Six Sigma, waste has a very specific definition which is any activity that does not *directly* add value to the end product. There are many activities that provide indirect value or support the actions that directly add value (such as IT) but those are considered waste from a Six Sigma perspective.

  3. podfeet - June 10, 2017

    Jim – As I said in the article, IT is necessary to secure your networks and create servers and all of that. But think about the specific examples you cited. “If a ticketing system goes down…” Well what if the ticketing system NEVER went down? Wouldn’t that be better? Obviously a holy grail but work with me here. If the system went down daily, you’d need 20 people to keep it up. If it went down weekly, you’d only need 10. Once a month? Maybe 1 person would be needed. By that example, 19 of the 20 people’s work is waste. Therefore the LAST person’s work is waste. See what I mean?

    In my previous job, we couldn’t use Digital Ocean servers. But why couldn’t that kind of system be built in house inside our firewalls? If it can (and probably has been) then all of that work I described was waste. Until better processes and technological advancements are made it might be _necessary_ waste, but it’s still waste if it can be eliminated and the end product is unaffected.

    It’s a tough concept and I made all of the arguments you’ve made here so I know where you’re coming from!

  4. Phil - June 13, 2017

    I’m in a place where everything is moving out of the datacenter into the clouds, and quickly. Sort of a cross-roads in my career as I’ve been working in the data centers for a long time. So I’m taking the opportunity to learn about new (to me) technologies like git, docker, gradle, artifactory, etc. I think the clouds still have some work to do because there still is the occasional outage, so I don’t think they will be able to completely empty out the Datacenter. Having some new skills makes it a bit easier to face an uncertain future, and I don’t want to end up like this guy LOL

  5. Allison Sheridan - June 16, 2017

    Ironic that you would post, Phil! To everyone else, Phil and I used to work together. I’m not sure if you were there when I got the six sigma religion though. I think your approach is fabulous and will quote you on the subject.

  6. James Earl Ford - June 17, 2017

    In my opinion, the belief that “any activity that does not *directly* add value to the end product” dehumanizes people and their work. It also removes any accountability that doesn’t fit in the six sigma dogma.

    Notice that I started this by saying “in my opinion” and Six Sigma is just a codified opinion that over time will be replaced by another codified opinion. Unfortunately many “people” will be displaced, hurt and even killed because of the too strict interpretation and implementation of that codified opinion.

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