Categories of Work in IT

I recently found myself listening to the audio book “The Phoenix Project” by George Spafford, Gene Kim and Kevin Behr. The plot of the book takes you on the journey an IT Operations Manager has to endure as he is gets abruptly promoted to VP of IT Operations. In his new role, the main character identifies IT procedural weaknesses and also observes how the demands from the business make The IT Department seem like a business roadblock.

Part of the book introduces a board member who provides a lot of insight and compares IT to a manufacturing production line, mentioning concepts such a the “Theory of Constraints” and “WIP (Work in Progress) “. This is my very favorite part in the book because it defines the four categories of IT Work and the comparison to manufacturing is very accurate.

By no means I claim to be an expert on any of the management procedures explained in the book but I have been a first hand witness of the four types of work and how they impact a business:

1. Business Projects are the ones with a direct link to the business. These projects get the highest priority since they are revenue regenerating for the organization in most cases.

2. Internal Projects are the ones handled by IT Internally, driven by IT Initiatives. These are for example a network equipment refresh or remediation, the migration to a new email platform or the installation of a new datacenter.

3. Operational Changes are the kind of work done to keep systems running or to enable/disable functionality based on changes in business requirements. The Novel defines Changes as follows:

a ‘change’ is any activity that is physical, logical, or virtual to applications, databases, operating systems, networks, or hardware that could impact services being delivered.

4. Finally the number one enemy of productivity, Unplanned Work. This type of work takes all other work and puts it in the back burner, it results in heroic battles to “fight fires” due to outages and loss of productivity in other areas of the organization. In general, this is recovery work, taking IT away from meeting its goals.

In my experience, when IT work is not “in tempo” meaning the production line has a backlog or it is not flowing properly, problems and outages happen. Once the constraint or bottleneck is identified, the pace is recovered, although in some cases this takes halting all projects to focus on freeing up the bottleneck. Not handling the issues with the constraint results on more unplanned work and more load on the constraint.

When IT is not a solution’s provider it is seen as the organizational constraint. If IT does not get in front of the business identifying current and future technological needs, the other business units will. Unfortunately when the other business units are determining the IT solutions, in a lot of cases they don’t fit supported models and/or are incompatible.  IT Must be providing solutions to the business, not problems. IT can do this through engaged leaders, working as a team with the other business units to identify areas of opportunity and to scale systems according to the business demands. When IT leaders focus on single minded solutions not inline with business needs they generate unplanned work which delays Business Projects resulting in more unplanned work. This can also also give the false impression of IT capacity issues.

IT can also be it’s own worst enemy. In the spirit of improvement and in an effort to be cutting edge, IT elements move forward with unplanned implementations, deviating form the predetermined growth plan. When this happens antiwork rears it’s ugly head in the form of unplanned tasks, unplanned remediation and unplanned scaling to facilitate poor service operation. An IT organization should have a growth plan, put together to meet current and future demands of the Business. Any changes to the overall architecture of this plan must be carefully reviewed and the changes communicated.

As you have seen, my perspective always puts emphasis on Business Needs and Business Requirements. Technology for Technology’s sake can create a lot of unplanned work which will reflect in missed business objectives. This applies when IT is a service to an organization. When the business IS technology, then Technology for  Technology’s sake in the form of innovation works, but this is a very specific case. For most cases, IT is a service an organization needs to create business outcomes.

In my experience when IT Develops a work flow control mechanism it becomes more efficient and an effective business service. This in turn lets the organization focus in growth and new opportunities.

“We can’t work on the strategic when we haven’t mastered the tactical, we can’t work on the tactical when we haven’t mastered the operational”

I highly recommend this book to anyone in IT. The book also gives anyone outside of IT a good level of perspective on what challenges are encountered by IT teams almost universally.

It appears at Interop 2017 there was a discussion precisely about how IT works and how it must change from comparing data centers to factories instead of museums.  I found this on an a blogpost on Packetpushers. The comparison and the image presented reveal how for IT to move fasts and react quickly to business needs, it needs to move to an Industrial model for the data center operations.

The goal of any factory is to operate a production system with the following characteristics:

  1. Speed
  2. Controlled costs  (predictable cost is a key factor)
  3. Consistent quality (preferably high quality, but consistency is key)

Link to the blogpost on