Just like the world of high fashion, the world of business lives on fads. What is in fashion one season is next year’s “so last year”. Think about all of the business books that are published every year that are eagerly purchased and devoured by the unwashed masses of middle management, each promoting a new paradigm for success. From In Search of Excellence to Good to Great to whatever you might happen to have on your nightstand right now, these opuses guarantee to unlock the secrets to taking your organization to the next level for just $12.95– until the next book is written that explains why those secrets were wrong. These “how to” efforts also tend to spawn a lot of jargon (raise your hand if you’ve ever been “empowered”) that most folks don’t understand but spend a lot of time talking about. My marketing guy once sat in a meeting that was supposed to develop a strategy for the organization based on the type of company they were as defined by the hot publication at the time. Unfortunately, the committee could not even agree on which of the four types of companies they were, and things went downhill from there. According to him, things got pretty heated, but the assortment of pastries they had at the breakfast buffet were some of the best he’s ever had, so the exercise wasn’t an entire waste of time. One of the enduring buzzwords that has arisen, and endured, from this ever expanding business bibliography is “lean” and unlike the ghosts of paradigms past, a company that truly embraces lean actually does provide benefit for its customers.
As with any popular business trendy terminology, you have to be careful when assessing a corporation’s commitment to, and understanding of, lean. If your data center provider’s response to your lean related inquiries consist of “you know, it’s what the Japanese use” you may want to feel “empowered” enough to take your business elsewhere. Although many of the principles that define a lean company did originate with the efforts of W. Edwards Deming to revitalize Japanese industry after WWII, lean is actually a holistic philosophy rather than a few processes that most providers use to describe why they build their modules off-site.
As a term, lean is typically viewed as synonymous with cost reduction. This is a misnomer. All the efforts of an organization that is dedicated to lean operation due manifest themselves in lower cost deliverables, this is just one of multiple positive end products. First and foremost, lean principles are focused on the reduction of waste. Waste in this instance is a broadly defined to include everything from an improvement in a process that saves a minute in product assembly, to the replacement of an entire component with one that is more efficient in performing its function, to reducing the labor it takes to install the product at its end location. Using this holistic focus on reducing waste, a lean organization actively incorporates these improvements in its product on a continual incremental basis. This means that present customers reap the immediate advantages of these improvements in terms of both cost and performance, as do future end users, as all enhancements are automatically incorporated into a continually evolving product design. This approach is diametrically opposed to the typical mode of data center development in which all identified problems are “stored up” to be corrected in a later revision of the product. Thus, the customers who had the great fortune to serve as these “discovery zones” are asked to live with these imperfections so that the provider’s future end users can reap the benefits at a later date. While obviously the antithesis of lean philosophy, this is what passes for it with most data center providers.
Unlike the vast majority of business “fads”, the principles that define lean have a proven record of success in other industries and are easily incorporated into the world of data center providers. The internal efficiencies identified and adopted by the companies that have adopted this philosophy deliver to end users the paradox of high quality and low cost. While lean is a commonly misused term within the industry, for the discerning customer identifying a provider that isn’t just following the latest fad and that has truly embraced the philosophy, the benefits will be found both on their bottom line and in the on-going operation of their facility.