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Applying Lean Methodology to Application Performance Management

Summary: The ExtraHop system provides the mapping and measuring capabilities needed to continuously improve application performance using lean methodology.

Lean methodology enables businesses to continuously improve the efficiency of repetitious and defined processes. First introduced in the Toyota Production System, lean operational principles have helped some manufacturers achieve a sustainable advantage over competitors.

IT operations can use lean methodology to achieve similar results, according to professors Bradley Staats and David Upton, writing in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. Based on a seven-year study of lean methodology at Wipro Technologies, Staats and Upton say that software engineering projects using lean principles finished in 5% less time than non-lean projects, and cost 9% less than budgeted compared to 2% cost savings for non-lean projects. The authors go on to claim that six basic lean principles can be applied to knowledge work, including IT operations. The six principles for lean IT management are:

  1. Continually root out waste
  2. Make tacit knowledge explicit
  3. Specify how employees should communicate
  4. Use the scientific method to solve problems quickly
  5. Recognize lean systems develop over time
  6. Have leaders blaze the trail
The Wikipedia page on Lean IT focuses on ongoing software development and project management, but lean methodology can also be applied to application performance management (APM). With objective facts that are easily understood across the entire IT organization, IT operations teams can continuously root out performance inefficiencies and increase "goodput" in the application infrastructure, or the amount of used bandwidth, storage, and processing capacity that contributes to business value.

Applied to APM, lean methodology for knowledge work implies the following activities:

  1. Continually root out waste by continually identifying and removing performance bottlenecks—network misconfigurations, poorly written SQL queries, resource contention in virtual environments (manifested as virtual packet loss), or corrupted storage volumes.
  2. Make tacit knowledge explicit by automatically measuring and mapping application performance and then disseminating that information throughout the organization.
  3. Specify how employees should communicate with a single solution that encourages cross-functional collaboration.
  4. Use the scientific method to solve problems quickly with real-time data from across the application infrastructure.
  5. Recognize lean systems develop over time and will yield cumulative, incremental benefits.
  6. Have leaders blaze the trail by training and motivating their teams, and committing to the effort over the long-term.
Several ExtraHop enterprise customers use the ExtraHop system in this way. At the IT director's behest, one organization sends out a weekly email listing the top ten application performance bottlenecks. The report contains application-level details that pinpoint the problem for the responsible teams. Each week, performance bottlenecks and easily addressed errors are identified and removed, incrementally but continuously improving the speed, resilience, and efficiency of the environment.

The ExtraHop system helps this particular customer implement the first four lean methodology principles listed above. The web-based interface of the ExtraHop system is accessible by everyone in the organization and presents information in a way that is easily understandable for various functional teams. Specialist teams still use their niche tools, but depend on the ExtraHop system as the basis for cross-functional collaboration.

The ExtraHop system continually and automatically adapts to changes in the application and IT environment, specifying what "normal" application performance looks like as well as identifying performance outliers, relationships, and trends across systems and services. And, the system does this across all tiers of the application, including network, web, database, and storage. With real-time performance data from across the infrastructure, the ExtraHop system enables IT teams to employ the scientific method to improving performance, forming a hypothesis and testing it quickly. This allows teams to quickly characterize issues without the challenges of point-tool triage and coordinating information flows.

Just as lean methodology transformed automotive manufacturing and other industries, it can also transform how IT operations manage application performance. By taking a methodical approach to continuous application performance improvement, IT organizations can help their companies achieve sustainable competitive advantages.

The ExtraHop system provides the essential ingredients an IT organization needs to run a lean IT operation. Do you have experience taking a methodical approach to application performance management? If so, please share in the comments!

Matt Cauthorn is a Senior Field Systems Engineer with ExtraHop Networks, and is passionate about innovations in business technology. 
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