SAFe at American Express – A Customer Interview

Customer Interview: SAFe at American Express — What it Means to Keep the Trains on Track While Still Debating Value Streams

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Director of Enterprise Agility Success, Oden Hughes sits down with Dean Leffingwell to talk about what it takes to manage and nurture a large-scale application of SAFe at a company like American Express focused on providing the world’s best customer experience. She’ll discuss the challenges of establishing alignment between organizations with conflicting views, and why they run their Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) as a cost center. She’ll share patterns of success, how they’ve created a tailored approach to improve results, and why success depends on much more than courses, workbooks, and principles.

Presented at the Global SAFe Summit, October, 2020.

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Cerno – SAFe Implementation for IT: A Case Study

“We collaborate more than ever with our customers by involving them in planning as much as we can. And we deliver frequent demos—even beyond customers’ expectations. Our customers have found communication to be more effective since the SAFe implementation.”

Sam Wu, Agile Head Coach and Training Director, Cerno

Challenge:

Deliver custom solutions faster and with higher quality for clients.

Industry:

Information Technology, Software

Results:

  • Delivery cycle time dropped by 58%
  • The rate of release failure went down from 0.6 times on average per release to 0
  • The interface automation level increased from zero to 70 percent
  • Reported defects decreased from 13 times per release to five

Best Practices:

  • Power through setbacks – Find solutions and don’t let them stop your momentum.
  • Assess regularly – Inspect & Adapt and DevOps health checks keep teams aware of progress and on track toward goals.
  • Choose a compatible partner – A partner with a business view, not just R&D, moved Cerno ahead with training and coaching.

Introduction

As a custom software factory, Cerno is poised for rapid growth as part of China’s expansive technology market. The company delivers technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing, open source software, and IoT solutions for a diverse range of clients, from logistics to government.

Cerno - SAFe Implementation for IT

To compete effectively, Cerno set out to elevate the speed of delivery, reduce defects, and improve the quality of its solutions in the long term, with the ultimate objective of being more client-focused.

“We needed a next-generation software development method to meet customer needs and reach our goals,” explained Sam Wu, Agile Head Coach and Training Director, Cerno.

Cerno’s founders brought experience in developing software for the financial industry. They found the ‘weak matrix’ structure worked in HR outsourcing, but not so well in product delivery. (A weak matrix is an organizational structure in which the balance of power tilts decisively in the direction of line or functional management.)

And while the traditionally waterfall company had experimented with Lean-Agile development in the past, they lacked the training or business support to build momentum.

SAFe®: The Path from Strategy to Delivery

While attending Leading SAFe® training, a Cerno executive saw a promising path to Agile, leading Cerno to adopt the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe). “It was clear that we needed SAFe to make Cerno a total Agile enterprise, to expand Agile not only to product lines but also to the business and functional departments such as HR and finance,” explained Liu Yilei, VP, Cerno. “We saw SAFe as the model that would take us from strategy to delivery.

“SAFe provided a comprehensive toolkit and an easy way to move forward,” added Wu, who was hired at that time to lead the effort as the internal change agent. At the same time, the company brought in SAFe Gold partner Aura International for coaching and training.

Per the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, James Li, Principal Consultant from Aura, led the SAFe Executive Workshop. Jack Xu, Senior Consultant from Aura, delivered SAFe® for Teams training and helped prepare for the first Program Increment (PI) planning event. They organized teams, reconfigured the office to better support those teams, and reorganized the product plan with user-story mapping.

For the first Agile Release Train launch, they began with four Agile teams—the entire R&D team plus Infrastructure and Operations—on an existing initiative to digitalize a logistics solution for a client.

From that first PI, team leaders embraced the Lean-Agile mindset. They identified priorities based on business value and began allowing people to self-organize. Instead of waiting to be assigned work, developers identified the work based on business objectives, committed to the work in PI Planning, and moved forward with it.

More Stories in Less Time—Despite Setbacks

Though Cerno set out to follow SAFe by the book, they ran into roadblocks that forced mid-course adjustments. In middle of the first PI, the Systems Architect left, leading Cerno to assemble a team to assume his responsibilities.

Additionally, the customer cut some funding because of market forces. And when managers wanted to move some teams to another client project, it nearly stopped the train. Given technical and capacity challenges, Cerno chose to postpone 15 percent of the high-risk PI objectives and scale back the size of the train.

Developers also found it challenging to transition from private to public code, a decision made to reduce bottlenecks in bug fixes and hidden technical debt. As the project team transitioned away from three-week waterfall development, the coaching team helped set code standards. In time, they found that developers took more pride in their code because of its public nature.

Even with the early challenges, the Inspect and Adapt session after the first PI showed the teams had met PI objectives and reduced defects. The ART could produce 45 stories per two-week iteration, on average, by the end of the first PI, compared to 30 stories per three-week iteration in waterfall.

Cerno - SAFe Implementation for IT

Routine DevOps Health Checks

When Cerno first introduced DevOps practices, the company lacked a SAFe DevOps Practitioner. Still, they made progress on a delivery pipeline and staging environment, supported a grayscale release of a product, and shortened the time to release future versions.

Additionally, they formed a new system integration testing (SIT) plan that shrunk testing time by 25 percent initially, and then by half, freeing the development team to put more effort into new features.

To expedite progress, they began conducting DevOps health checks. Early on, those checks uncovered opportunities to improve delivery. To stay on track, they now perform this exercise every PI. With the habit of regular checks, Cerno has made strides with automated testing and continuous integration/continuous deployment.

To support their efforts, they also established Communities of Practice and hold monthly technical workshops for developers.

Delivery Cycle Time Down 58 Percent

Today, Cerno runs two ARTs with 80 people. These high-confidence teams agree on, and begin working on, requirements faster. They communicate and collaborate more tightly than before they introduced SAFe and are continuously improving.

When the ART completed work with one client, they simply switched the train to support another logistics client with a similar solution—effectively a plug-and-play release train. The company then added a second ART to deliver value to another client. Each train continues to serve a single client.

To date, Cerno has made remarkable progress:

  • Delivery cycle time dropped from 3½ weeks to two weeks, or 58 percent
  • The average offline time for a new production environment release decreased from 3½ hours to half an hour
  • The rate of release failure went down from 0.6 times on average per release to 0
  • The interface automation level increased from zero to 70 percent
  • Reported defects decreased from 13 times per release to five

Most importantly, Cerno realized its goal of becoming a more customer-centric organization.

“We collaborate more than ever with our customers by involving them in planning as much as we can. And we deliver frequent demos—even beyond customers’ expectations,” Wu said. “Our customers have found communication to be more effective since the SAFe implementation.

“This is the first SAFe transformation case I have coached in a local company in China,” Li said. “Although there’s still more to improve, it is really a great and wonderful start! It is a significant milestone for SAFe in China.”

Looking ahead, Cerno is building toward agility beyond solution delivery, into administrative management and marketing—to become a total Agile enterprise.

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Suggested Case Study: Amdocs

Easterseals Northern California – SAFe for Healthcare

Easterseals Northern California -  SAFe for Healthcare

“We began seeing value within weeks or months of launching the first release train. Leaders and business owners could very quickly see we were working on the things that were important to them.”

Jeff Hallett, VP, Product Management

Challenge:

Tighten alignment between the business and IT in order to bring mission-supporting applications to users sooner.

Industry:

Healthcare, Non-Profit

Results:

  • Higher quality on a more predictable and reliable timeline
  • Lower defect levels
  • The highest employee engagement score in the company in the IT group

Best Practices:

  • Use a ‘velvet glove’ approach – Easterseals got leaders and business owners accustomed to the mindset and practices before introducing it as SAFe, which provided low-friction engagement for business stakeholders
  • Tie efforts to principles – They connected everything back to principles and shared values
  • Staff smartly – They put change leaders in key positions
  • Keep an eye on progress – Retrospectives with metrics demonstrated results

Introduction

Nonprofits are better known for their compassion than their innovation. But Easterseals Northern California is proving that being Agile contributes directly to its mission—to responsibly disrupt and transform home- and center-based health care.

For 90 years, the Bay Area nonprofit has been helping people with autism and other developmental disabilities address life’s challenges, achieve personal goals, and gain greater independence for everyday living.

SAFe for Healthcare

In doing so, Easterseals Northern California administers an impressive level of care:

  • 7,500 clients in an average month
  • 96,000 clinical appointments per week
  • 25,000 claims per week
  • 1 million managed treatments a year
  • 10,000 active health practitioners

To manage that volume, Easterseals depends on front- and back-office applications for clinical operations, case management, billing, and more. And it must do it all in a HIPAA-compliant security and privacy environment.

For the IT team, staying ahead of business needs has often proven daunting. In the past, staff and contracted team members across the U.S., Ukraine, and Vietnam used “scrum-like” practices, however, the different geographic groups didn’t work together or identify dependencies with other teams. And in the absence of stated priorities, teams were always tackling the most urgent ad hoc requests.

“It was a tyranny of the urgent,” explained Jeff Hallett, VP, Product Management. “Ad hoc requests were taken with no oversight or triage. We knew we needed better alignment.”

The Right Time for Real Transformation

For technology leaders, the vision was clear…

  • Tighter alignment between business owners and teams
  • Fewer surprises and reactive work requests
  • Less work-in-progress
  • More transparency
  • Consistency in portfolio intake, prioritization, and backlogs
  • And better accounting for capacity and business value

But the path to reach those objectives was littered with obstacles. Over the years, IT had pushed to adopt Lean-Agile practices, which included experimenting with the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®). However, early efforts at applying the Framework fell short—likely due to a variety of reasons, such as lack of business support and training.

But in 2018, the timing seemed right to try again. At that time, the nonprofit was beginning the transition from paper-based processes to electronic management systems. Concurrently, leadership was pushing for decentralized decision-making and network-based management. IT leaders believed in SAFe, but this time, they would take a different approach to rollout.

“Technology leadership liked the scalability and the business engagement of SAFe, and believed that it would make a difference,” said Hallett, who joined Easterseals at that time to help drive the transformation as a SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC).

First, Cultivating Mindset

SAFe for Healthcare

For a renewed effort at transformation, Easterseals would introduce some of the practices of SAFe to members of the business, but leave out some of the SAFe-specific terminology early on. Transformation leaders emphasized mindset—using the Agile Manifesto—to get the business on board and begin changing the culture.

Instead of training leadership immediately, the organization first began involving them in activities such as portfolio management, prioritization, and epic grooming.
Only later did they double back to train leadership and begin using terminology and practices with them. That was key to their phased, incremental approach to preparing for and holding the first Program Increment (PI).

Training started with the technology group and moved on to business roles. A few business members took SAFe® for Teams and SAFe® Product Owner/Product Manager to build understanding and excitement. When they offered SAFe® for Teams, they explained that this was the exact process they had already been following.

A Phased, Incremental Rollout

Easterseals took a phased approach to the SAFe transformation, like building layers of a cake. It all rested on a foundation of Lean-Agile leadership. To that end, they filled key positions with “change leaders,” which included dedicated Portfolio managers and Scrum masters.

They layered the rest on top of that firm foundation: Lean-Agile principles; teams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) that embrace the core concepts of SAFe; cadence and synchronization; DevOps and releasability; an architectural runway; PI planning; system demos; inspect and adapt practices; and IP iterations.

To pave a path for success, they began with the Portfolio SAFe configuration to secure commitment from internal business partners, standardize requests, gather needs from the business, and analyze for value.
About 75 people joined the first Program Increment (PI) planning event, from technology, clinical programs, business excellence, and the PMO.

At that first event, some grumbled about having to spend two days away from their regular work. However, by the second PI, they were so engaged that some people said two days wasn’t enough time. From the start, progress was clear.
“I noticed an immediate benefit,” recalled Trista Travis, IT Program Manager and the nonprofit’s Release Train Engineer (RTE). “Because the second someone put a Post-It note that had a dependency up on our Program Board, they realized, ‘Oh, we really do need to collaborate across teams.’”

As teams became accustomed to the new way of working, some learned the hard way. After one team committed to 150 story points, they soon found themselves in over their heads.
“We let them get to the point where white flags were raised,” Travis said. “Then we had a session where we took a step back, erased the white board, and started figuring it out from scratch. It was a lot of making the hard choices and throwing stuff over the side of the boat.”

Today: Excitement and Buy-in from Top to Bottom

In less than a year, Easterseals Northern California has successfully changed the organization’s mindset and way of working, and started seeing the fruits of their efforts.

“We began seeing value within weeks or months of launching the first release train,” Hallett said. “Leaders and business owners could very quickly see we were working on the things that were important to them.”

They now run two Agile Release Trains and five Value Streams. They are committed to holding ceremonies on cadence. Sprint goals are aligned with PI objectives. Teams are collaborating. They regularly use metrics and retrospectives to assess progress.

As Easterseals expanded its SAFe practices, leaders found that they lacked the tooling they needed as current configurations didn’t match the new ways of working. Thus, as they established a regular cadence and ceremonies, they implemented new tooling that worked in step with their practices.

Most importantly, they’re seeing excitement and buy-in across most teams and leadership. In fact, leaders have started asking to participate more after hearing positive feedback from teams.

In less than a year, they have achieved strong cross-team and cross-Value Stream collaboration, alignment, and management of dependencies—reducing unexpected requests for the IT team.

Easterseals Northern California -  SAFe for Healthcare

Business partners are involved in planning and conversations from the beginning, ensuring solutions are more on the mark—upping the satisfaction in delivered solutions and increasing value delivered:

  • Easterseals hit 83 percent for achieved objectives in its first PI
  • 70 percent or more of the delivered story points in releases are directly traceable to items on the Portfolio strategic roadmap agreed on with the business
  • IT delivers also higher quality on a more predictable and reliable timeline
  • Defect levels are down
  • IT has the highest employee engagement score in the company

Ultimately, getting quality applications sooner enables staff and clinical practitioners to focus more on transforming home- and center-based health care.

“Now, there’s a direct line-of-sight between work in progress and how it helps with the Easterseals mission,” Hallett said.

Training At-a-Glance

Watch the Easterseals presentation from the Global SAFe Summit – October, 2019

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Suggested Case Study:

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

SAFe case study CMS

Nearly 140 million Americans rely on Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the health insurance exchanges—all programs administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The agency pays out approximately $767 billion in benefits annually and employs 4,100 people to administer programs in partnership with state governments.

Challenge:

Isolated Scrum teams didn’t make much progress within a deeply ingrained waterfall culture and against long-range planning and budgeting.

Industry:

Government, Healthcare

Results:

  • CMS shifted the budget from 100% dedicated to system maintenance to a 40/60 split between maintenance and innovation
  • Help desk tickets decreased by 55%
  • Surveys show a 27% increase in employee satisfaction

Best Practices:

  • Prepare for face-to-face events – CMS found the SAFe Implementation Roadmap and training invaluable to smooth-running PI planning events
  • Establish transparency – Stress the importance of open, honest discussion and engagement
  • Communicate the vision – In opening remarks at PI events, CMS reminded team members that their work directly impacts people’s health and lives

Introduction

Amid the pressures of increasing citizen expectations, the CMS environment is complex and ever-changing as budgets and legislation fluctuate—making for a perfect setting to introduce Lean-Agile principles. A few isolated programs had begun using Scrum practices, but given the size and complexity of programs at CMS, Scrum did not lend itself well to longer-range planning and the identification and mitigation of dependencies among the Scrum teams. In addition, the organization still had cultural battles to overcome.

“We were still suffering from a ‘throw-everything-over-the-wall’ mentality,’” explained Brent Weaver, Director of Systems Implementation at CMS. “The few Agile teams were requiring more of programs and that created more frustration on both sides. There was no vision or framework where everyone saw how they fit together. As a result, what they delivered was late, with defects—and not what the market needed.”

SAFe: Systems Thinking for a Complex Organization

In 2017, Weaver arrived with the charge of improving the Agile transformation for the Center of Clinical Standards and Quality (CCSQ) within CMS. In the search for a new approach, the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) resonated as the right option.

“SAFe brought a much-needed approach to scaling Agile and systems thinking that was critical to an organization of our size and complexity,” Weaver said.

In preparation to obtain buy-in and funding, Weaver built his knowledge of SAFe by taking some initial courses: Leading SAFe®, and later, Implementing SAFe®. Following the Leading SAFe® course, he made the case for the Framework to leadership and earned the full support of Steve Davidson and Mark Plaugher, Directors of the Information Systems Group within CCSQ. Additionally, Debra Santos, Director of Hospitals, ASC, and QIO Systems was also willing to support the adoption of SAFe for one of her systems.

SAFe case study

For help, Weaver tapped Scaled Agile Partner, Agile Six Applications, Inc. With Agile Six, CMS decided to implement SAFe first in a group brand-new to Lean-Agile concepts, rather than with those already using Scrum, for a chance to start from scratch. The first teams on SAFe would be those working on CMS’s Hospital Quality Reporting (HQR) system, which healthcare facilities use to report data to CMS.

With leadership backing, they secured the budget and marked the calendar for the first face-to-face Program Increment (PI) planning event—to take place just six weeks in the future.

PI Planning Day One: Messy and Chaotic

To meet the timeframe, CMS decided to shortcut the recommendations from the SAFe Implementation Roadmap and skip SAFe training—a decision that created significant challenges and that, in hindsight, they wouldn’t recommend to other organizations. The fact that many team members were located outside the area, and many were contractors, played into that decision.

To help prepare for PI planning, HQR conducted a four-hour, half-day mock PI session with about 20 percent of team members to give them an idea of what to expect.

For the actual PI Planning event, CMS brought together more than 120 people, with approximately a quarter of them coming from out of town. The first day, unfortunately, proved to be chaotic and more challenging than expected for several reasons, according to Weaver and Ernie Ramirez, President of Agile Six Applications:

  • They underestimated the refinement status of the backlog and didn’t follow all relevant parts of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap
  • They had a single Certified SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) in Ramirez (the recommendation is 3 – 5 per 100 development practitioners)
  • The agency skipped Leading SAFe®, SAFe® for Teams, and SAFe® Product Owner/Product Manager training
  • They did not identify Value Streams
  • CMS simultaneously created the implementation plan and prepared for the Agile Release Train (ART) launch

“It cannot be overstated how horrible day one of that PI went,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t lay out an implementation plan as well as we should have, and the development contractor didn’t have the resources or roles we thought they did.”

PI Planning Day Two: ‘Quarter-Million-Dollar Conversations’

Day two, however, could not have played out more differently. “At the end of day one, rather than throw in the towel, we rolled up our sleeves, and resolved to do better in day 2. We came out of day two with a plan that the teams would ultimately deliver on over the next 12 weeks,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez points to a few reasons for the turnaround. After the first day, people returned knowing more of what to expect and came more prepared. Also, the two-day format created a sense of urgency to make progress. Additionally, Ramirez walked around troubleshooting any issues immediately as they arose.

“After the first day, everyone had an opportunity to ‘sleep on it,’” he said. “A lot of the frustration at the end of the first day kind of washed out and everyone came back with a renewed focus and commitment to get the plan done,” Ramirez said.

SAFe case study

Team members and program managers alike left the event more hopeful than ever before, believing they could actually hit the plan’s targets. Most promising, Weaver and Ramirez noticed productive discussions happening throughout the room—often between people who had worked together for several years, but had never actually met one another in person.

“We witnessed a lot of team and cross-team bonding that just cannot be replicated over WebEx, Hangouts or Zoom,” Ramirez said. “There is something immeasurably valuable about being in the same room with someone, laughing, joking and yes, respectfully arguing. A lot of trust was earned and built on day two.”

“Quarter-million-dollar conversations were happening all over the place,” Weaver said. “That’s what it would have cost to fix problems down the road if those conversations had not happened.”

Communication, Collaboration across CMS + Contractors

Following that first PI, CMS began adhering to the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. They delivered Leading SAFe®, SAFe® for Teams, and SAFe® Product Owner/Product Manager training. Unlike the first PI, they identified Value Streams.

“For the second PI, we found a lot of value in identifying Value Streams and ARTs, which helped people understand where they fit in and how teams fit together,” Ramirez said.

Agile Six also delivered training to external contractors, including Leading SAFe®, SAFe® for Teams, and SAFe® Product Owner/Product Manager. Several people at contractor organizations earned their SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) certification and began training their own people—knowing that it is likely to give them one more strength to promote as they seek to win future contracts with CMS.

During RFPs, contract organizations routinely compete against each other. However, once on contract, they must work with team members from competing firms. As an unexpected benefit, SAFe helped unify CMS team members and contractors, as well as contractors from various companies. Face-to-face, they collaborate more effectively and come to personally know the people behind the roles, developing comfortable working relationships with each other.

“It’s fundamentally better for American taxpayers that teams work together and break those walls down,” Weaver said. “I’m really proud of contractors’ ability to collaborate, share information, and work as a single team. Doing so has helped us reduce trouble tickets, so we know we’re delivering higher-quality solutions.

Because of CMS’s heavy use of contractors, each ART is comprised of people from numerous organizations. That required transformation leaders to be sensitive to job functions and responsibilities across the different companies on a single ART to foster trust and teamwork instead of competition. Having a single backlog for an ART creates further harmony among diverse team members.

27% Boost in Employee Satisfaction

So far, CMS has trained more than 200 people, including 25 – 30 Certified SAFe® Program Consultants (SPCs). The agency has also since launched four more Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

With training and preparation, participants have been more engaged in PI Planning events after that first learning experience. Communication, says Weaver and Ramirez, has been critical to the acceptance of the new way of working. Especially in the early days, they had to communicate clearly and persistently to convince people to join in the effort and assuage fears about what this meant for their futures.

SAFe Case Study

“We really had to do a lot of selling on SAFe to get people comfortable,” Weaver said. “People were genuinely apprehensive about changing the way they have worked for so long, but as they have seen results, they have embraced it.”

And over time, HQR has implemented other SAFe concepts such as Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). Well ahead of a PI, the primary stakeholder has time to weigh the value of work and prioritize—which takes some of the emotion out of the decision, Ramirez says.

They are also in the process of adjusting budgets to fit more with shorter-term planning. Instead of years in advance, they began thinking in terms of three-month increments, in which Ramirez called a halfway step between the traditional approach and the ‘wild west’ of Scrum.

Higher Quality, Happier People

After a bumpy beginning, CMS points to measurable progress:

  • Budget shift to modernization versus maintenance – Instead of 100% of the budget going to maintain the existing HQR system, now only 40% is dedicated to it. A full 60% of the budget goes toward innovation for the system, helping the agency deliver on citizen expectations.
  • Higher quality – The HQR group reports a 55% decrease in help desk tickets from hospitals—demonstrating a direct impact to customer satisfaction.
  • Happier people – Surveys conducted before and after SAFe show a 27% increase in employee satisfaction.

While CMS can’t yet measure customer satisfaction gains directly, they know that fewer quality issues and more innovation contribute to that goal.

“SAFe provided a map that enabled us to shift to modernizing versus just maintaining the status quo,” Weaver said. “Beneficiaries will ultimately benefit from more user-friendly, human-centered design systems, which will allow us to reduce the burden on our providers.”

The group’s success has caught the attention of others, with trains now starting in other CMS groups. “Other programs within CMS have approached HQR asking us how to drive the same outcomes,” Santos said. “It’s a testament to how far we’ve come in the past year.”

  • Transformation starts with leadership – Ideally, you need two to three leaders who are fully committed to the change. If possible, send them through SPC training.
  • Coaches are a MUST – CMS found substantial value in them
  • Agile contracting is necessary – Rigid contracts that have highly specific deliverables can be an obstacle to agility and to embracing shifting priorities as new data emerges
  • Use contractors that understand Lean-Agile principles – Hire teams that truly understand what this means, not just those who can talk the talk
  • Find collaborative work space – From PI planning events to day-to-day work, collaborative work space enables teams to capture the value of face-to-face interaction
  • Just do it! – “If we could time-travel and do it again, we would emphasize a sense of urgency to get going,” Weaver said. “Set a near-term date and follow the roadmap.”
  • Engage employees – Any effort is only as strong as its people. Approach the change with empathy for what your team is undergoing and leverage the support of management and coaches to keep employees engaged and excited.
  • Start with Essential SAFe® – CMS found it valuable to simplify as much as possible and started with a program that lent itself to Essential SAFe. The learnings they achieved will influence larger programs, which will require multiple Value Streams.

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Suggested Case Study:

NHS Blood and Transplant

Easterseals – A Unique SAFe Journey in Healthcare IT

Presented at 2019 Global SAFe Summit, San Diego Oct. 2, 2019

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Easterseals Bay Area, as a non-profit provider of behavioral health therapy, provided a unique challenge and environment for the adoption of SAFe for its IT department. In order to overcome some of the unique challenges of our environment, we embarked on a year-long incremental approach rather than a traditional implementation, adopting techniques and practices as they supported our growth and learning in scaled agility. Additionally, due to the large number of conflicting and dynamic inputs to the teams, we started our SAFe journey at the Portfolio level to get our flow and capacity under control while we developed the knowledge and maturity of our agile teams underneath. At Easterseals we will share with you how we took this innovative trail by focusing on mindset and principles that would enable the business and teams to partner with us without the initial intimidation of a radically new framework and terminology.

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Next: Standard Bank Customer Story

Johnson Controls

“SAFe brings so much more engagement, which has really been key for all parties. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”

Rajbir Bal, Program Manager, Access Control

Challenge:

JCI’s access control division needed to improve coordination among firmware and software teams across three locations with the goals of improving time-to-market, quality, and engagement.

Industry:

Information Technology

Solution:

SAFe®

Results:

  • The division releases at least 2-4X more frequently than before
  • JCI reduced the size of its bug backlog by at least 3X
  • Access control delivers on its commitments 100 percent of the time
  • Customers/stakeholders appreciate the chance to provide feedback during the process—instead of at the end

Best Practices:

  • Get help – Especially early on, partner with a consultant
  • Train leadership – JCI trained resource managers, product management, and directors to get buy-in before moving forward
  • Train SPCs – They serve as change agents and coaches
  • Follow progress – JCI used automated Agile dashboards in Team Foundation Server

The partner that made it happen:

Introduction

Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI), a global diversified technology leader, serves customers in more than 150 countries and reports $30 billion in annual revenue. The company’s access control division develops systems to help buildings achieve maximum security while increasing efficiency and lowering costs.

Johnson Controls - a Case Study of Implementing SAFe

Developing access control systems demands that firmware and software teams work together to deliver on a coordinated schedule. At JCI, those teams are spread across Southern California, Milwaukee, and India.

In 2014, the division began an effort targeted at improving time-to-market and the predictability of releases. They also sought to identify quality issues sooner, increase transparency, and raise team engagement.

“We were having very little success at planning, predicting releases and committing to and delivering on the timeline,” explained David Richter, Director of Engineering, Access Control. “We wanted to increase our flexibility and ability to react to change, and our ability to react to our customers’ needs in a positive and respectful manner.”
But Richter and other change agents knew they would have to contend with several roadblocks along the path to transformation:

  • Changing the established paradigm of working in waterfall
  • Aligning teams in three disparate locations

Taking the SAFe route

JCI identified the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) as the most promising route for instilling lasting Lean-Agile practices.

“SAFe brought all the practices for us to start and then learn and adapt as we go,” said Rajbir Bal, Program Manager, Access Control. “It also forced us to have tough discussions early and throughout development—versus down the road when we got close to release.”

To gain leadership backing, the Director of Engineering gave decision-makers clear reasons for deploying SAFe and the expected outcomes. Concurrently, Scaled Agile Gold Partner Icon Agility Services trained leaders in Leading SAFe® so they would fully understand the Framework. This worked well as change agents succeeded in securing executive backing.

They followed with Leading SAFe® for directors, product managers, and resource managers, bringing together 15 individuals from California, Milwaukee, and India. Next, they defined the structure of the various teams that would begin the first Agile Release Train (ART), and put all team members through SAFe® for Teams training.

Two individuals, including Bal, earned certification as SAFe® Program Consultants (SPCs) in order to serve as change agents and coaches. Following certification, they became authorized to deliver SAFe® Scrum Master, SAFe for Teams, and SAFe® for Product Owner/Product Manager training.

In addition to Bal, other coaches included engineering managers and the director of engineering, while Scrum Masters became coaches at the team level. When it was apparent that Scrum Masters and Product Owners had an overlap of responsibility, or at least their understanding of it, Bal brought them together in one location for a custom Product Owner/Scrum Master workshop to clarify roles and responsibilities.

Navigating the path to alignment

In 2015, JCI launched its first ART at a Program Increment (PI) Planning meeting with about 100 people and followed Essential SAFe. Bal and others knew they were taking the first steps toward progress, however, early planning events felt chaotic.

“The first two PIs were not fun and we did not come out with committed plans,” Bal said. “Some features were not well defined, people were not clear on the process, and we needed more time to break down user stories.”

Bal attributes the discord to a couple of factors. The company included some user interface teams in that first ART, but not others, which caused misalignment. Geographic distribution also created challenges.

For more cohesive teams, they tried several approaches. First, they brought representatives from India to present on behalf of their teams. However, in doing so, they lacked the voices of those not in attendance.

Johnson Controls - a Case Study of Implementing SAFe

Instead, they decided to start concurrent planning in the U.S. and India, with India beginning 12 hours ahead due to the time zone differences. As teams in India complete their planning days, those in the U.S. come in early to overlap with them. The Indian teams present their planning via videoconference. The same goes for day two of planning. American teams presented in what was the evening for their Indian counterparts.

Richter notes that, in those early months, JCI attempted to modify the Framework. Only some teams attended training and the company followed three-week sprints. “We tried to make changes to SAFe, but that was a disaster,” he said. “After that experience, we then started following SAFe exactly.”

Many people also insisted on continuing lengthy documentation of functional and design specs, after 50 years of following this practice. But that changed over several PIs. “We realized that documentation is not adding value,” Bal said. “Instead, we switched more to flow diagrams and writing code versus paragraph after paragraph of specs.”

With these tweaks, subsequent PIs progressed more smoothly as everyone became accustomed to the ceremonies and practices of SAFe. They made better use of their time at PI planning events. By the third PI, all teams also joined the train.

Over time, JCI found it more feasible to modify the framework to its own processes. In the access control division, developers must follow a specific process. They found that SAFe allowed them to implement Lean-Agile methods that worked in conjunction with these required processes. Other modifications included concurrent planning for India and the U.S., and face-to-face meetings between Product Owners and Scrum Masters to walk through the features radiator.

Acting like ‘One Big Team’

Richter and Bal saw a number of positive outcomes emerge during the transformation:

  • Increased ownership – Entire teams committed to goals in PI planning and delivered on those goals
  • Less technical debt – Issues were identified earlier in development, which allowed for course corrections along the way, instead of at the end of development
  • Greater participation – All levels joined in, including business partners and architecture
  • Earlier decisions – Using the Lean Startup Cycle, they make go/no-go decisions sooner in the cycle than they had before practicing SAFe
  • More automation – Automation reduced the overhead of testing and corrects quality issues earlier
  • Enhanced transparency – People bring up issues sooner, rather than at the end of a PI
  • Greater teamwork – Inter-team collaboration improved as well, with individuals reaching out to help others when needed

“We started acting like one big team, instead of a bunch of teams of teams,” Bal said. “We saw more engagement at all levels.”

Driving time-to-market, quality, predictability

Johnson Controls - a Case Study of Implementing SAFe

After early growing pains, JCI began seeing the results of its efforts:

  • Faster time-to-market – The division releases at least 2-4X more frequently than before
  • Higher quality – JCI reduced the size of its bug backlog by at 3 times
  • Predictability – Access control delivers on its commitments 100 percent of the time
  • Customer satisfaction – Customers appreciate the chance to provide feedback during the process—instead of at the end

“This wasn’t an easy process for us,” Bal said. “It takes time getting everyone jelling PI over PI. But SAFe brings so much more engagement, which has really been key for all parties. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”

For more details on JCI’s Essential SAFe implementation, download the supplemental PowerPoint presentation.

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Suggested Case Study:

Deutsche Bhan

Telia Finland

“SAFe seemed like a 1-to-1 match for us. Someone had already come up with a model to address our needs, which brought better requirements management, prioritization, governance, and a common language for the entire organization.”

Risto Reinikainen, Head of Lean Agile Center of Excellence, Telia Finland

Challenge:

In the competitive, fast-moving telecom market, Telia Finland sought to deliver more capabilities to customers, but that longstanding waterfall methods kept it from moving forward.

Industry:

Telecommunications

Solution:

SAFe®

Results:

  • 39 percent more capabilities than before
  • 34 percent less cost
  • 94 percent accuracy delivering on commitments for a major rebranding
  • Teams deliver incrementally and more often
  • People are more engaged in and satisfied with their work

Best Practices:

  • Don’t skip training – Telia trained as many people as possible on Leading SAFe and Implementing SAFe, with many earning SAFe® Agilist (SA) and SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) certifications. When they hit the critical mass, everything began running more and more smoothly.
  • Get help, especially in the beginning – Telia engaged partners for training and guidance for the first one to two years to speed up implementation
  • Prepare suppliers – The company provided way of working documentation (WoW) and training for suppliers
  • Plan ahead – Do your homework on epics and features, and prepare carefully for ceremonies, especially for PI Planning

The partner that made it happen:

Introduction

Telia is a leading telecom operator in the Nordic and Baltic regions with 21,000 employees and 84.2 billion SEK ($9.46 billion USD) in net sales. Telia Finland is a major player in the Finnish market with operations on mobile, broadband, fixed line, and TV.

Within the country, multiple companies compete for a share of the telecom market. To stay ahead of the competition, in 2011 Telia Finland began a transformation initiative to deliver innovations to customers faster. At the time, the company struggled with infrequent and often delayed releases—about every nine to 12 months—and quality issues, with various groups placing the blame on others.

telecom and SAFe

“The market, especially in the mobile business, is constantly changing,” said Risto Reinikainen, Head of Lean Agile Center of Excellence at Telia Finland. “To compete, we have to be very proactive and agile in bringing out cutting-edge offerings.”

To that end, individual teams and projects spent several years applying more or less homegrown practices to achieve goals, including improving communication, putting more emphasis on statements of work, better requirements management, and close follow-up of activities. Yet none of these disparate activities produced the results they sought and most projects continued in waterfall.

SAFe®: A Perfect Fit

Driven by an urgent need to change, Telia researched Agile methodologies. When they came across SAFe, it seemed like a perfect fit for their objectives.

“SAFe seemed like a 1-to-1 match for us,” Reinikainen said. “Someone had already come up with a model to address most of our needs, which brought better requirements management, prioritization, governance, and a common language for the entire organization.”

To begin the journey of adopting the Framework, Telia engaged partners such as Scaled Agile Partner CGI for training and coaching. Partners initially trained approximately 100 people on Leading SAFe®. The next natural step was to train Telia’s own people on Implementing SAFe®. During the fall of 2016, four people earned SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) certification and began leading training as well.

The company kicked off its first Program Increment (PI) in 2015. Since many within the company had worked with loose Agile concepts previously, most individuals were ready and willing to embrace a more mature framework. Yet, the first few PIs did not go as smoothly as hoped as people were still getting accustomed to the new terminology and method. The structure, however, kept people engaged and with a clearer vision about their roles.

“The First Planning sessions were more or less chaotic,” Reinikainen said. ”Epics and features were far too big and not mature enough; routines and tools were missing; some teams were still waterfalling their sprints; and areas such as test automation and configuration management were not ready for Agile operations.”

The company applied that experience and devised various steps to prepare people for PIs. They trained as many people as possible on Leading SAFe® with many earning SAFe® Agilist (SA) certifications. To that, they added their own ”war stories” to educate team members and give them more insight throughout the training.

To prepare suppliers to join Agile Release Trains (ARTs), Telia created a guidelines document on working with Telia and applying SAFe, and a workshop to reinforce the concepts. Every few weeks, coaches followed up with suppliers to ensure they were working in the new model. The common language of SAFe effectively unified the internal and external team members across locations.

Once Telia reached around 200-250 people trained, Reinikainen noticed a new synergy; people were using the same terminology and applying the concepts more cohesively and naturally. Today, the company has trained more than 400 people. They promote continuous improvement and best practices with Communities of Practice.

An Answer for Complexity: Large Solution Level SAFe

telecom and SAFe

Initially, Telia began with Program-level SAFe, but then moved to Portfolio-level SAFe. More recently, they moved to Full SAFe, including SAFe’s Large Solution level, to accommodate complexity, which includes more than 200 systems, many dependencies, and numerous external suppliers. Particularly, the Large Solution level offers the roles, artifacts, and processes for larger, multi-year projects such as those at Telia.

From Telia’s perspective, Full SAFe and SAFe’s Large Solution level brought much-needed additions:

  • More transparency to all development activities and resourcing
  • Coordination and synchronization between waterfall projects and Agile Release Trains (ARTs)
  • Control, visibility, and transparency to connect all trains, suppliers, and programs
  • Greater value creation with one prioritized portfolio backlog

“Large Solution SAFe brought a systematic approach to our complex environment that we definitely needed in order to coordinate our work,” said Nina Pakkanen, a Solution Train Engineer (STE) at Telia.

In Inspect & Adapt sessions at the close of PIs, comments from team members confirmed that the Large Solution level had achieved what Telia anticipated:

  • “Large Solution Level makes epics more concrete prior to actual implementation.”
  • “Capability and feature-level analysis are much clearer now.”
  • “Transparency and collaboration with the business has improved a lot.”

Additionally, Telia consolidated from seven development portfolios into a single operational one that includes all B2B, B2C, B2O, and channel solutions—resulting in better visibility into resources, activities, and priorities. Before, the various portfolios competed for the same resources and projects.

Pulling Off a Rebrand—On Time

In 2017, when the company rebranded under the name Telia Finland, SAFe provided essential structure to coordinate the many pieces. Overnight, everything had to be branded with the Telia Finland name, from the website to napkins.

With everyone committed to the goal, they delivered smoothly by the target date. What’s more, they did so with 94 percent accuracy on their commitments.

“At night it was the old name, and in the morning everything was under the new name,” Pakkanen said. “It was truly a success that we carried out such a big initiative on time.”

Delivering More, and More Often

Telia currently runs two Agile Release Trains and two Large Solution Trains with around 350 people. Since moving to SAFe, the company has noted quantitative and qualitative results to show its progress:

  • More capabilities – The development organization delivers approximately 39 percent more capabilities than before
  • Greater predictability – Telia has much-improved insight into what’s coming in the next one to two years
  • Cost reduction – Telia reduced the price per developed capability by around 34 percent
  • More frequent delivery – Teams deliver incrementally and more often
  • Higher engagement – Leaders note that people are more engaged in and satisfied with their work

Such results have helped earn middle management buy-in for the transformation; their commitment has increased in step with results.

“People know the old way doesn’t work, and they are now seeing that SAFe is a better approach,” Pakkanen said. “We’ve demonstrated that, even on the largest projects, this creates more communication, more transparency, and more progress.”

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Suggested Case Study: Swisscom

Northwestern Mutual – SAFe for Financial Service

“We had been challenged a number of times in changing our underlying CRM platform. After implementing SAFe, our overall effort actually came in $12M less than originally estimated and 18 months sooner than predicted.”

Bryan Kadlec, Director, Client Digital Experience

Challenge:

Market leader Northwestern Mutual sought to apply Lean-Agile practices to remain competitive, though previous efforts had been stymied by a longtime Waterfall culture.

Industry:

Financial Services, Insurance

Solution:

SAFe®

Results:

  • Collection Feature Cycle Time improved 30-50%
  • IT delivers requested capabilities 80-90 % of the time
  • The overall effort on a project came in $12 million less than originally estimated and 18 months sooner than predicted

Best Practices:

  • Support experimentation—Leadership at NWM fostered an environment, and provided resources, to enable this transformation. “Our forward-thinking leadership knew we needed to bring in some changes so they invested in continuous learning and improvement,” Schindler says.
  • Use proxies for offshore teams—NWM pre-plans with offshore teams and then brings proxy representatives to PI planning events.
  • Customize SAFe—NWM increased engagement with its own spin on the program board, with the Transformation Railway Station.

Introduction

In business, staying ahead of the competition inevitably requires taking some risks. But how do you do this, when a key part of your success depends on keeping risk at bay? That’s the question Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual (NWM) had to answer while seeking new ways to maintain and build on their 160-year history of helping families and businesses achieve financial security.

To maintain the leadership position NWM has built over nearly 160 years, the organization has taken an innovative, entrepreneurial approach to business. It’s paid off: The past year (2016) was one of the company’s strongest. The company reported record-level revenue ($27.9 billion), was named by FORTUNE® magazine as one of the “World’s Most Admired” life insurance companies, and has maintained the highest financial strength ratings awarded to any U.S. life insurer.*

300-Day Cycles

In 2012, the company reached a turning point. In addition to a company-wide push for continuous learning and improvement, IT needed to move faster.

“It took over 300 days and many instances to deliver value to our customers,” says Jill Schindler, Manager, Client Digital Experience. “We were getting a lot of questions around, ‘Why does it take so long and cost so much?’ We knew we needed to be more flexible, adaptable and responsive, and it didn’t take us long to realize that Agile was a big part of that.”

SAFe for Financial Services

NWM had tried to adopt Lean-Agile practices before, experimenting with a few Scrum teams in the mid-2000s. However, those efforts ran headfirst into a deeply ingrained Waterfall culture.

“We didn’t start with much training or coaching, and teams worked on the aspects they wanted instead of the aspects that we needed,” says Bryan Kadlec, Director, Client Digital Experience. “We fell woefully behind and then were slammed by a waterfall world to put out the fire.”

A Second Attempt at Agile

Northwestern Mutual shelved its Scrum efforts until 2012, when the company embarked on a more methodical approach to Agile. This time, they set out to train as many people as possible. “We wanted to do this and senior leadership believed in it, so we pushed forward,” Schindler says.

At the time, three or four teams experimented with Agile but the organization simply was not set up to accommodate it.

For next steps, they held their first rapid improvement event (Value Stream mapping). The weeklong event brought together Scrum teams and specialized teams with the goal of addressing the challenges of these distinct groups working together. The end result: a better understanding of the problems and a systematic way of approaching them. Key to that was engaging the IT strategy team to help remove barriers.

The Missing Piece

About that time, NWM found the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) and quickly saw it as the missing piece. “SAFe totally lines up with what we were already trying to do but we just didn’t have a platform for it,” Schindler says. “This was the framework we needed for delivering Agile at scale.”

“In SAFe, we could see Agile and Lean together and had this sense that it was a very powerful thing,” Kadlec adds.

Schindler and Kadlec went back to the leaders or their respective organizations and secured resources to try SAFe—becoming pioneers not just for their own company, but also establishing NWM as the first large company in Wisconsin to take this course. They believed firmly in their chosen path, but it still felt risky to apply new practices to a large chunk of the company’s portfolio.

“It shaved a few years off our lives!” Kadlec quips. “We believed that the path we were taking would deliver high value, but it still felt high risk. But if we’re going to compete, we had to have quicker response time.”

The First Program Increment (PI)

SAFe for Financial Services

Schindler and Kadlec trained as SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) and additionally tapped Al Shalloway, CEO, Net Objectives, along with SAFe Fellow Jennifer Fawcett to facilitate the company’s first PI planning event. NWM asked 270 people to come together for the first two-day event—in January in Wisconsin—where they launched their first four Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

The response was heartening. People were engaged and ultimately on board. “At the end of the day, we felt a huge sense of accomplishment,” Schindler says. “Everyone understood what was expected of them.” Northwestern went on to train as many people as possible. In fact, for some team members, training was the first sprint.

Making the shift in the company’s longtime waterfall culture wasn’t easy. Coaching was key, especially at the beginning. As teams went through cycles of Plan, Do, Check and Adjust, old behaviors would emerge—and need to be addressed. In truth, some individuals chose to leave—but most chose to dedicate themselves to the new way of working. The “new era” behaviors the Agile mindset fosters have taken such a firm hold companywide that they are now a factor in performance reviews.

By the second PI event, again with Fawcett facilitating, Release Train Engineers had a sense of ownership.

Transformation Railway Station

Northwestern Mutual took a clever twist on the ART program board, dubbing it Transformation Railway Station. On its board, a tunnel image represents the funnel of new work/ideas and cows represent impediments. The former is particularly apt given that, in 1859, two policy owners were killed when a train hit a cow and derailed. When the new company lacked the full funds to pay out those first life insurance claims (for $3500), NWM’s president at the time personally borrowed the funds.

On the board, laminated trains make their way along the track (the Portfolio level) from the departure station through various stages:

  • Identify—Communicate change vision, and determine Value Stream, ARTs, scope, PI planning date and training
  • Prep—Perform SAFe training
  • Launch—Conduct final prep and first PI planning event
  • Mature—Coach and develop the ART
  • Inspect and Adapt—Hold Inspect and Adapt workshop, plus second PI planning event
  • Aftercare—Complete coach strength, weakness, opportunity and threats (SWOT) assessment; discuss future coaching engagement

Through the PI, all parties keep a close watch on progress and metrics. “Leadership can walk up and know where we are at any time,” says Sarah Scott, Agile Lean Organization Coach at Northwestern Mutual.

SAFe for Financial Services
Transformation Railway Station

Cycle Time Improvement

Since deploying SAFe, and beginning its first earnest Agile efforts, Northwestern Mutual reduced Collection Feature Cycle Time by 30-50%. And surveys of business representatives indicate that IT delivers what they requested 80-90 percent of the time.

Ultimately, the changes affected the bottom-line—for the better. “After implementing SAFe, our overall effort actually came in $12 million less than originally estimated and 18 months sooner than predicted,” Kadlec says.

Now in year three, with 12 PIs behind them, the company has five SAFe instances and 14 ARTs in progress across a wide range of product areas. Northwestern Mutual provides leadership for SAFe in Wisconsin, even hosting a Scaling Agile Meetup Group that draws as many as 300 attendees to its monthly gatherings.

“We’re at a tipping point now, continuing to break down barriers,” Schindler says. “The whole organization is in the heart of a major transformation and we’re leveraging SAFe to accelerate our Lean-Agile IT transformation. We’re at a whole other level that I don’t think would have happened as quickly or with as much impact if we’d just had a handful of Scrum teams.”

* Ratings are for The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and Northwestern Long Term Care Insurance Company, as of the most recent review and report by each rating agency. Northwestern Mutual’s ratings: A.M. Best Company A++ (highest), 5/2016; Fitch Ratings AAA (highest), 11/2016; Moody’s Investors Service Aaa (highest), 1/2017; Standard & Poor’s AA+ (second highest), 6/2016. Ratings are subject to change.

Northwestern Mutual is the marketing name for The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NWM), Milwaukee, WI and its subsidiaries.

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Suggested Case Study: Fannie Mae