What can you use Agile and Lean for? Software delivery? Manufacturing? My answer: everything! Even running a company.
Let’s first consider the value. For me, as an Agile Coach and practitioner for many years, there are three things that make any Agile team successful:
As simple as it sounds, this is not easy to achieve: a team is going through multiple phases before it becomes high performing. A backlog is a product of multiple conflicting priorities and ambiguous features, and the cadence is frequently impacted by multiple emergencies and schedule changes. Yet, without all three components it is impossible to achieve an established velocity or high productivity.
In one of my engagements when I led an Operations team, I saw my role in leading and supporting the team in establishing our operational rhythm based on all three Agile components of success listed above, and this is how we do it:
1. Collaborative cross-functional team. Culture comes before everything else. It has been proven time and again that collaborative well balanced teams achieve success in every single area they choose, while a collection of brilliant misaligned individuals moving in opposite directions rarely is capable of accomplishing anything significant.
Everyone on the operations team was supportive and ready to swarm on high priority items no matter if they fall within their immediate area of accountability. How did we achieve that?
Step 1: We create a cross-functional epic to achieve any strategic goals, whether it is a new on boarding process for our consultants, or a company Meetup for our engineers - open to any technologists who would like to join us.
Step 2: For each cross-functional epic, everyone creates stories and tasks related to their functional area of contribution – for example, for the Meetup, our talent development team, CTO, marketing – everyone collaborates to make these workshops successful and informative for engineers.
2. Now the second component of Agile success: a healthy backlog. We have weekly sprints so our backlog is never stale. We do ongoing grooming during the sprint and we use persistent chat to discuss any questions related to priorities and time lines. When we need input from the team, we create tasks for our team members. Just-in-time tasking helps us stay current. The challenge of just-in-time tasking is to ensure there is a handshake and an agreed upon time line between the team members, so that the scope does not increase during the sprint. Our Agile tool, Jira, is a helpful mechanism of organizing our backlog and reflecting planning results in a prioritized and structured form.
3. The third component is the well-established cadence, or our operational rhythm. In order to stay in rhythm, we needed to define whether release planning applies to an operations team and whether sprint cadence works for us better than kanban, which is traditionally suitable for operations. We discussed our cadence at the latest retrospective, and decided to leave the rhythm of quarterly strategic planning, monthly release planning, and weekly sprint review and planning sessions, in addition to the daily stand up. We are still finalizing the format for each of these ceremonies.
What is my role on this team? Probably you’ve guessed already. As a team member responsible for running smooth operations, I act as a Scrum Master. No more status meetings or progress updates. Collaboration, alignment, open mindedness – these are all signs of a productive team. Our burndown chart and sprint commitment rate (the ratio of completed work to committed work within the sprint) are the best indicators of the predictability and quality of planning.
About lean: Continuous improvement is the heart of our Agile implementation. At every retrospective we come up with more ideas for how to optimize our processes, make them repeatable by creating checklists and templates, utilize modern tools such as online checklists or new Jira functionality – whatever it is, we are eager to try and learn. Once one of us comes up with an idea, the team discusses it and everyone is positive, open minded, and ready to try it out. If it works, we make it part of the process, if it does not, we pivot.
We do not wait for retrospectives to improve our processes. We try to come up with one improvement a day – whether it is installing chrome boxes in our conference rooms or turning one of the conference rooms into a cozy library full of technical and professional growth books. There are small ones, such as switching from a phone call to Google hangouts for our stand ups – but whatever they are, everyone feels ownership and support in introducing our “2-second improvements” every day.
There is a lot more I can tell you about how exciting Agile journey is for our team, but I do not want to give you impression that everything is perfect. We are on our journey to fine tune our rhythms and working towards commitment rate of 90%. Predictability of delivery is very important to us because our clients and consultants depend on how efficient and responsive we are on the operations side, so predictable and efficient operations are our utmost priority.
No one needs to prove that Agile is a modern delivery framework. According to VersionOne’s State of Agile Survey for 2015, 94% of all organizations surveyed are practicing Agile. In addition, 45% of respondents worked in development organizations where the majority of their teams are Agile. Contrast this with the 2009 report: only 31% of the respondents worked in organizations with zero to two teams practicing agile. There are multiple successful Agile implementations with well documented case studies around them.
We cannot state the same about scaling Agile. There are several frameworks: Disciplined Agile Delivery by Scott Ambler, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) by Dean Leffingwell, and Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) by Craig Larman. Introduced by three different thought leaders, each framework generated communities of practice and a number of positive stories related to successful implementations. That being said, each of those frameworks requires deep analysis and experience in scaling Agile in order to be successful. Frameworks define the approach and the implementation paradigm, but in each case it is the methodology built on top of those frameworks and the company-specific execution that makes or breaks it.
At InRhythm, we have been providing enterprise level Agile support for almost 10 years, and we have our own defined methodology. When SAFe was introduced, we felt that our experience and approach resonated with the crispness and the combination of Agile and Lean practices defined by SAFe. Our current approach to supporting large organizations in scaling their Agile delivery is based on three steps:
How did this collaboration happen?
Our company's goal is to bring thought leadership to our clients and support change within their organizations. The clients who bring us in are the leaders within their organizations. We come in as change agents to support their commitment to continuous improvement. This is how this company, via a prior client referral, brought us in to support their commitment to scaling Agile.
Initially, a team of Agile coaches came on site to meet with their executives, team members, as well as product and delivery managers. The team attended their Agile ceremonies, reviewed artifacts, and mapped their delivery processes. Their receptivity to change, open thinking, and positive attitude still resonate with me. I felt proud to have had a chance to collaborate with such a strong leadership team. We were able to identify their areas of strengths, which they could build upon, as well as provide practical advice on areas of opportunity that, if addressed, will expedite delivery and support quality at the portfolio level. Based on our findings, we created a customized training curriculum to provide specific implementation details to the teams within a large portfolio.
Once this was shared and presented to the client, we were excited to head back on site and provide the training, which we certified with the Scaled Agile Academy. The training covered how a large software delivery structure should be organized, how to manage dependencies, how to identify priorities at release level, how to build program-level engineering practices, and several practical details of scaled Agile implementation. In addition, we discussed how each of those principles applied to their specific organization:
The next step includes coaching Agile implementation teams at the portfolio and program levels, co-create artifacts that reflect their unique objectives and organizational structure, and provide thought leadership in building repeatable processes that will stay with the organization after we leave. It is such a great responsibility, and so much fun, to help organizations build world-class practices and sustainable cultures of Agile delivery at scale!
Transformation agent with experience in business transformation including transition to Agile (Scrum, kanban, lean) and building scaled Agile and Lean organizations. Passionate about motivating people and building great teams.