Interview with Steve Bell


Steve Bell will be speaking at the Lean IT Summit Conference in Paris on 22/23 November. This is a great opportunity to see and hear a genuine thought leader in the field of Lean IT. He actually was the first to explore the Lean IT concept and he even wrote a book on the topic with Mike Orzen.

I was quite impressed with his talk during the 1st edition of this conference last year and how he integrated all these new technologies (Mobile, Social, Cloud, …) into the Lean philosophy.

Steve is a very respected figure in the community but what really fascinates me with his perspective and thoughts is that there are the ones of someone bridging communities…Many Lean thinkers give the impression of focussing their work on Lean only, which is fair enough as the subject is so vast and still not fully understood by the majority of businesses. However, Steve goes beyond that and builds bridges between different ones : Agile, BPM, Enterprise Architecture …

This is exactly what his last book Run Grow Transform: Integrating Business and Lean IT is all about. An enlightening read with a first part dedicated to his vision of the successful 21st century company, and a the second one leaving room to many different experts such as Mary Poppendieck, Troy DuMoulin, Charles Betz, Paul Harmon, Sandra Foster or John Schmidt to elaborate on their respective specialties.

Last but not least, Steve is not only someone who aims at changing the world, he does mean it. Together with his lovely wife Karen, he has been working relentlessly to help non-profit organisations to become more efficient with Lean4Org. Needless to say : #hypertextual is delighted he accepted to answer our questions …

Hello Steve and thanks for answering our questions. Could you please introduce your work to the readers

My journey began in finance and accounting in the early 1980’s, and I became involved in the start of what evolved into the ERP industry.  I became a certified planning and material management professional and worked with manufacturing companies, where I witnessed the emergence of Lean flow and pull techniques and the challenges they caused for traditional MRP and advanced planning systems.

You were the first to explore the Lean IT concept with the eponymous book in 2011. How did you find out that Lean philosophy could be valuable in the IT field?

That journey led to my first book in 2006 where I reconciled ERP and Lean practice.That was the first time I wrote about “Lean IT”, and this was the first book to use the term. This research led me deeper into the IT organization where I explored how Lean principles could be applied to drive continuous improvement. This resulted in the book, Lean IT. Even as Lean IT went to press and won the Shingo Prize, I realized that something vital was missing.

So I went to work exploring the theme that would become my latest book, bringing IT capability fully into all aspects of the enterprise to improve speed and innovation while reducing waste and cost. In this third book I apply what we learned in Lean manufacturing decades ago, concluding that the traditional IT organization is a “job shop” and requires the realignment of people and processes to make value flow quickly into the hands of the customer. With the increasing speed of technology innovation and the importance to enterprise strategy, this message is well-timed.

The practice of Lean IT is gaining popularity and I’m seeing signs of increasing adoption in all industries and across all areas of IT.  Based on my observations, the vital element that is missing from the Lean IT dialogue is the core Lean concept of a Value Stream that encompasses the entire enterprise. This requires business and IT to work together, creating value, driving improvement and innovation into the hands of the customer.

What was the motive behind your last book Run Grow Transform: Integrating Business and Lean IT?

It tries to look beyond the most popular areas of Lean thinking in IT—application development (Agile and Scrum) and IT Service Management (ITIL and COBIT)— to encompass all aspects of IT integration with the enterprise.

Dan Jones, who along with Jim Womack coined the term “Lean” over two decades ago, was a great help to me during my research into the principles of Value Stream integration, and he was generous to write the foreword. In that foreword Dan examines Lean IT in the broader context of various industries and the global economy. I was also honored to collaborate with several thought leaders in the Lean IT world as they contributed chapters on their various disciplines: Mary Poppendieck (Lean Software Development), Paul Harmon and Sandra Foster (Lean BPM), Charles Betz (Lean Enterprise Architecture), John Schmidt (Lean Data Management and Integration), and Troy DuMoulin (Lean IT Service Management).

Run Grow Transform also elaborates on the tension between innovation and operations. How do you think Lean can help in improving the former while keeping excellence in the latter?

It is fascinating to me that this tension, which is now playing out in the rapidly emerging DevOps community, is very similar to what manufacturing learned years ago about the boundary of design and development, as new products flow into manufacturing engineering and production. There is a natural turbulence when the speed and uncertainty of product development transitions into the stability and repeatability of production operations. The integration and synchronization of these two fundamentally different mindsets is essential if an organization is going to drive speed, innovation, quality, and operational excellence across the entire enterprise value stream and into the hands of customers.

An excellent example of this is Apple Computer, which most recognize as a highly innovative company. But Apple has also been on the operational excellence journey for many years, and is very skilled at quickly delivering high quality products into the hands of customers through a variety of channels. This is how Apple is able to commercialize and profit from their innovation very quickly. It is very difficult for an enterprise to be skillful at both innovation and commercialization; and to deliberately synchronize them – Run Grow Transform explores this difficult balancing act and offers plenty of useful observations and examples.

Why did you chose to make this book a collaborative work with all these prestigious guest writers ?

I realized that when we speak of “aligning business and IT”, many think of “IT” as a single entity, an organizational function. In fact, IT is a gathering of communities, of sub-specialties that must work together to deliver value to the business, and through the business to its customers. I have watched as each of these communities has begun to learn and experiment with Lean thinking. So the I reached out to thought leaders in Lean Business Process Management, Enterprise Architecture, IT Service Management, Software Development, and Data Management disciplines to contribute focused chapters on their subject.

I contributed the chapters on the specialities of ERP and Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) products, as well as the chapter on emerging technologies, including Cloud, Social Media, Big Data and others. Each of these chapters explores how the particular discipline integrates with other disciplines and with the overall Enterprise Value Streams to improve customer value. The result was an amazing collaborative learning experience for all.

You have been traveling around the world and exchanging with Lean practitioners from different countries. Do you think that depending on the country culture there are different obstacles on the way to transform the organisation to a Lean one ?

That is a very interesting question.  There are many aspects to Lean—empowerment of people, nurturing of trust, the Leader as a Learner, standardization, emergent learning and problem solving within teams, to name just a few. In more entrepreneurial cultures, some of these aspects of Lean, such as empowerment of front line team members, are more easily adopted, but the practice of standardization and measurement can be more difficult to adopt. In cultures where employees have traditionally followed a set of directions provided by management, empowerment, visually displaying problems, and team accountability for problem solving problems can create some discomfort.

No matter what historical culture exists, the practice of Lean almost always represents a change from the status quo for front line employees, managers, leaders, supply chain partners, and even customers. So as we nurture the Lean transformation within any enterprise, in every culture, it’s important for leaders to consider these differences and support colleagues and partners as everyone adjusts to new ways of thinking and engaging. This requires patience, trust, and reflection.

You are working closely with people from the Agile methodologies world (Jeff Sutherland). How do you explain this common trend whereby Agile and Lean communities are working more and more closely ?

I have had the pleasure of working closely with many in the Agile community. I have taken a particular interest in Scrum and its parallels to the Lean management system, and Kanban for its ability to visualize and manage many types of workflows, helping move towards the ideal state of one piece flow (continuous delivery). I’ve also spent quite a lot of time with Mike Rother, author of Toyota Kata, which, even though it tells a story based on manufacturing examples, has been surprisingly popular with the Agile community.

What I have concluded is that though Lean and Agile have been evolving on parallel pathways, the basic principles are the same. The Lean Startup (Eric Ries) and Drive (Daniel Pink) are also popular crossover books with the Lean and Agile communities. I’m doing everything I can to encourage this crossover, because there’s  so much we can learn from each other, and so much each community can contribute to the success of  the fully integrated Lean enterprise.

With Lean4NGO you are working to help nonprofit organizations with Lean approach to make them more efficient. Why did you start this initiative and how do you think Lean can help these organizations ?

I appreciate your interest.  My wife Karen and I have been deeply involved with global microfinance and microenterprise initiatives for the past decade. With microcredit, a poor but highly motivated woman can receive a loan for a small amount of money and some coaching to start her own small business. Decades of research has shown that in most cases, these women reinvest their earnings in their families, sending their children to school and providing better nutrition. Also, using the skills and confidence gained, these women frequently become leaders within their communities, improving the lives of other women and children and the community as a whole.

The conversations we’ve been privileged to have with these women have shown us that, in many ways, these women are also practicing many important aspects of Lean thinking—eliminating waste, problem solving, continuous learning  and innovation in conditions of scarcity and uncertainty, while focusing on value to their customers. Every one of them is a Lean Startup. The organizations that support microcredit embrace the principles of respect for people and empowerment.

This led us to think about how Lean practice could help these and other humanitarian organizations to leverage their resources of monetary and human capital to improve the value of the services they deliver. When over 50% of the world’s population lives in poverty, on less than $2 per day, imagine the potential impact of helping a humanitarian aid organization to reduce their waste by 10%, 20%, or more. Imagine the impact that can make.

We will face many global challenges and opportunities in our lifetimes, and we can meet these challenges better by practicing the core Lean principles. Every nonprofit and NGO wants to do more with less, produce better outcomes for society, and provide better transparency for its funding sources.

As we have worked with a variety of NGOs over the years, we came to realize that those in the Lean, Agile, and other continuous improvement communities have so much to give, and have a generous spirit. We established Lean4NGO to create a community where individuals and organizations can come together, share stories, learn, and collaborate. Many fascinating stories and projects are already emerging from this community, and we’re just getting started.

The Lean Enterprise Institute is now supporting this effort, and LEI will publish an article soon about our collaboration with the Lean Institute Africa to efforts to introduce Lean to the HIV/AIDS community there. Visit to learn more and to read more about many organizations that are making a difference.

I was quite impressed with your presentation at the last Lean IT Summit where you confront the IT world with the reality of public applications and devices. How do you think Lean can draw on all these new technologies (Cloud, Mobile, Social, Big Data ….) to facilitate the transformation ?

Lean practice requires a clear focus on customers and what they value. These emerging technologies are providing us with new and fascinating ways to connect with our customers, watch their behavior, understand their preferences, anticipate their actions, learn what they value, and develop new relationships with them. I call this the “virtual voice of the customer.” I’ve  found this to be a very popular message within the traditional Lean community who is always looking for better ways to connect with their customers. These technologies are a great door-opener to start the business-IT integration dialogue. After all, there is no industry, no product or service that cannot benefit from better technology and customer integration.

What are the 3 main takeaways from your journey into Lean management ?

People rise to challenges, teams thrive on shared purpose, and it’s up to leaders of every organization to create an environment where everyone can learn and grow together.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s