When IT leaders think about assembly lines, they might consider them to be about as far from modern IT as any other business function. There's oil, noise, and welding, and a cadre of laborers ranging from highly-skilled artisans to staffers that complete the same menial task day in and day out. While the manufacturing floor superficially has little in common with the sterile confines of most data centers, many IT organizations share quite a few parallels to manufacturing.
Increasingly, IT is becoming a core component of many companies' products. Tech-heavy products were once the province of online startups, but now even rudimentary businesses incorporate IT into front-office functions. Organizations ranging from banks, to property management companies, to consumer electronics giants now embed technology into the product itself.
IT is undergoing a similar change to what happened in manufacturing several decades ago. Previously, manufacturing was something you did merely to get your product out the door, and was not a source of great competitive advantage for many companies. As new management techniques - more recently methods like Six Sigma and Lean arose - manufacturing suddenly became part of the product itself. Companies like Toyota could deliver higher quality at lower prices, completely changing the dynamic of the auto industry.
In IT, savvy companies are embedding technology into their products and in many cases using similar techniques to their manufacturing counterparts, often modified versions of the same methodologies. Consider a humble call center, where IT generally has served in an infrastructure role. Increasingly, companies build IT into their call center product, perhaps offering data-driven routing to get the caller to the right reps, or providing reps with a detailed view of their customer that makes the call more pleasant, and generates sales opportunities.
It's all in the product
While most IT shops are already doing many of the things associated with using IT as part of your assembly line, one of the major ones is also the least likely: factoring IT into your product design. At most companies, IT remains a back-office function, that's integrated at the last moment once all decisions are made. Contrast this to a competent products company. Marketing, R&D, Design, and Manufacturing generally sit at the same table, and participate in discussions driven by a product manager. Each group is responsible for its particular domain, but the overall product manager has ultimate control over how the product is designed and delivered. This is the role that's missing, and where conceptualizing IT as part of your assembly line can allow the mental and structural shift required to successfully embed IT in your products.
When there's a single person or small team responsible for a product, many of the turf wars between business, IT, and other players are eliminated. Final decision making authority rests with one entity, which provides the integrated vision of how IT fits into a product, all while ensuring IT's involvement from the very beginning of a new product's design.
The numbers game
Another major parallel between IT and an assembly line is reliance on benchmarks. Like an effective IT shop, the challenge of most assembly lines is producing minimal defects, at maximum efficiency, with the lowest cost. While this might seem like something most IT organizations already do, in the best manufacturing groups, these metrics ultimately change depending on the product. The quality and cost targets for one product might be very different than another, even within the same company or on the same assembly line. IT often takes too holistic a look at its benchmarks. There are several IT processes that can be maintained at a "good enough" level, while others require increased quality and very different resources.
It may be tempting to dismiss manufacturing as an old-line activity with little relevance to the modern IT organization, but there is much that can be learned from the world's best manufacturers. From deep ties into products, to targeted benchmarks that change based on the product, to heavy use of quality and efficiency methodologies. As with manufacturing, an organization that can build IT deeply into how it conceptualizes, implements, and delivers key products is one that can outmaneuver the competiton.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.