A retrospective on using the Scaled Agile Framework at Travis Perkins

Over the last year I have spent several days every month at Travis Perkins. TP have been using the Scaled Agile Framework, which I had read about but not had practical experience of previously. I should add that, up until TP, I had always been involved in more gradual, organic agile transformations rather than a huge, all-in-at-once approach. It’s been very interesting.

Around six months in I was asked to produce an experience report. Rather than base it on my own observations I decided to use my background in ethnographic research and grounded theory and did more than 20 informal, unstructured interviews of a random sample of people across all the different roles I could think of. I then scoured these for recurring themes. As I knew that I would be rather biased as a coach, I decided to present the findings in the form of a mock retrospective with equal numbers of Starts, Stops and Keeps. Hence keeping the overview as agnostic as possible (although obviously there is a fair amount of me in here too). Here are my findings, with explanatory notes below for the items that seem less self-explanatory:

1. Keep (what worked well and we would do again)

Initial training

Coaches

Flattened hierarchy

Big events

I was surprised to hear that pretty much everyone loved the Agile Release Train Planning event. This two-day workshop was considered by many to be a huge catalyst for the cultural change there had been. Old-TP, I was told, was a place where people didn’t speak to each other. Often people didn’t know the names of others just a few desks away. Now they said “Good Morning”, knew a bit about each other and had some insight into what other teams were working on. It had gone from a quiet, sterile environment to a vibrant, friendly one.

Minimize work

The whole organisation was told that apart from a limited number of strategic items, the IT department was not going to take in further requests for a year in order to give them the space to undergo a transformation.

2. Start (what might we start doing that would help us move forwards)

Trust

Safe to Fail environment

Launching right

Some initiatives felt like they started in the middle, with no articulated vision, unclear stakeholder ownership etc. The teams worked this out as they went along rather than Lifting Off* at the start. Sometimes this was quite painful.

Deep(er) Kanban

Taking a more individualised, team by team approach to visualising work in the Services and Operations area (see Cookie Cut Kanban in stop).

Retrospecting deeply

Beyond the teams heartbeat retrospectives that were working well. Implementing retrospectives that take a longer, more strategic view.

3. Stop (what would we do differently)

Cookie Cut Kanban

Service and Operations were running with generic kanban boards that did not really visualise their workflow accurately. A ‘cookie cut’ approach had been taken. This left the teams feeling there was some benefit (from making a portion of their work more visible), however they did not feel this helped with regards to insights into potential improvements etc.

Numbers as Targets (lots of me in this one)

I have been fascinated by the way that numbers mentioned as examples (particularly by management) are taken as targets, and how this had driven some dysfunctional behaviour. At one point some teams were a bit stuck with their first sprint planning. A director suggested “if you’re really stuck, try with about 25, you’ll know soon enough whether that is a good number or not”. Several sprints later I sat in a retrospective and saw a team tell how they had “planned 25 and done 25” for the last 3 sprints. Mmmmnnnn….

Entrenched Unempowerment

For example, up until last year people had been told to take their lunch from 12.45 – 13.30. They had since been told that they could by all means take lunch when they got hungry and that no-one would be noting down how long they took. Almost everyone persists in taking their lunch from 12.45 -13.30. One team, encouraged by their ScrumMaster and with the open blessing of the management team, decided to have lunch at the pub one friday and to purposefully take longer than the allotted time. The ScrumMaster recounted how twitchy they all felt as 13.30 came and went and how awkward they felt coming back into the office a tiny bit later than usual.

Unclear Ownership

A large number of stakeholders are involved in several initiatives. Teams sometimes have a hard job knowing who is the right person to speak to, getting consistent decisions and understanding value. We’re working on it.

Getting Itchy

This is just about me. I am learning to stop feeling “itchy” and get over myself. For example, a team of project managers sit together in Service and Operations. They wanted to explore how they could better collaborate. They didn’t feel ready or able to create and sit with project teams but did want to work together more effectively. They are now trying working with a single backlog across their team and pairing up on some of their work to give them visibility and cross-fertilisation of knowledge and ideas. Life isn’t perfect just yet. I’m learning to get over it. A bit.

*as per LiftOff – D. Larsen & A. Nies

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