It’s not about automation, its about elimination

Post by Matt Bjornson

Yesterday, after finishing up a meeting at a coffee shop, I happened to overhear two people talking about IT automation. I wasn’t eavesdropping, one of the men was so adamant in his “they don’t get automation” tirade, I am sure half of the people in the coffee shop did as well.

“Sorry *you* don’t get it, it’s about elimination, not automation”, is what I wanted to say. I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, where appropriate, automation is a good thing, but it begs a *bigger* question: why? This is a good time to pull out the “5 Whys” from our Lean toolkit, which originated with the Toyota Production System. It’s *really* simple, just ask ‘why?’ five times.

The 5 Why’s is a simple, but not easy, tool to use to get to a root cause. You start by asking “why are we doing x”, wait for a response, to which you respond with a “why?”, followed by a response. This iterates for three more cycles of “why?” followed by responses – you know, like a 5-year-old.

What is the first “why” we should be asking? If you said “why are we automating?”, you’d be wrong. The correct answer is…..

“Why are we doing this at all, is this a value add activity?”

Value add means – is the customer willing to pay for this? It’s time to be brutally honest here, and it’s especially difficult for Corporate America’s IT organizations to answer. They are far too separated from the customer. I would venture the response to this question is something along the lines of “this is how we do that” or “it says in our process document”.


At this point, we start to get into institutional disfunction, and culture problems (which often manifest themselves as technical debt). This process needs to be honest, candid, and without political motivation. Tough to do in Corporate America, but many companies have implemented Lean, why shouldn’t IT be the same?

You’ve got 3 more “whys” to ask… If, at the end of each of these 5 whys, you don’t receive responses that indicate there are good reasons to be performing an activity, you shouldn’t be doing it. Activities that aren’t value-added should be eliminated.

What does this typically say about IT Operations? What activities in your development team and process are value-added?

Even in startup companies, what features of your product are value-add? The highest value-added should really be what your MVP is about. The lowest, don’t do them.

Eliminate where possible, automate if you can’t eliminate.

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3 Responses to It’s not about automation, its about elimination

  1. Gabby says:

    Why is this so complex to understand the value of IT Automation? why people think that this is going to be a big mistake doing so?
    I have been trying to find out why is it so hard for people to adopt automation and put some of my thoughts in my blog: Top 5 IT Process Automation Myths and Misconceptions, what do you think?

  2. Matt says:


    Thanks for commenting. It’s not a question on whether there is value in automation per se, it’s more about are those processes value-added or not. If they are not (meaning, will an end customer pay for them), then should they be done at all? According to Lean, the answer is most likely, they shouldn’t be done at all.

    Corporate America’s IT departments need to understand the difference between value-added and non value-added. If you automate an activity or process that is non value-added, a waste of resources.


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