Harnessing the Power of Lean-Kanban in the Enterprise

Fortune 500 companies in many ways represent the pinnacle of success in our economy. Getting there isn’t easy, but if you do things right, you produce a slew of products that attract a lot of customers, and as a result must employ and  retain a strong base of technologists to cater to their ever growing needs. However, it is in that period of growth that some of the pains and challenges that accompany success can manifest.

The Financial Services Company (FSC) recognized these challenges in one particularly critical product development team (Team) that was responsible for providing the infrastructure needed to onboard new customers. However, the Team found themselves unable to keep up with their ever increasing demand, leaving FSC’s customers experiencing a suboptimal and customer-unfriendly onboarding process. This led to several customers threatening to cancel newly signed deals. As a result, both Product and Technical leadership were bombarded with complaints from the FSC Sales team, almost daily.

Natoma Consulting conducted a preliminary analysis of the Team’s flow and discovered that even though the number of clients being onboarded was approximately half of what it was the previous year, the average time it took to complete the onboarding had doubled.

Chart: Fewer successful client onboards, longer resolution time

This made diagnosing the root cause of the observed delay less obvious. Since the Team’s composition was the same as the prior year, and the number of customer onboards dropped, resolution time was expected to drop as well. Working with developers, team leads, and leadership, we quickly uncovered that the backlog was exponentially growing with onboarding requests from Sales, along with a variety of other requested work from other groups. As a result, many work items were being tackled simultaneously in an attempt to get everything done sooner. It became clear that the Team could benefit from applied Lean and Kanban principles to visualize and optimize flow, and reduce work in progress, and crafted a phased approach to ensure proper adoption.

Chart: Phased approach to reducing resolution time

In Phase 1, the Team focused on simply visualizing the flow. We tuned JIRA and other tools to facilitate better management of the backlog and enhance team dynamics. During this period the Team was able to study their cumulative flow diagrams and see how much time work items spent in each development stage. It became clear that the main contributor to prolonged client onboarding times was the wait (lead) time. This was the result of the accumulating backlog of onboarding requests that took the Team time to get through before Sales resorted to escalation.

In Phase 2, we coached the Team to limit the amount of work they were executing, to focus on catching up to the backlog, and also find sustainable ways to reducing cycle time. In this phase we introduced systemic continuous improvement mechanisms, or kaizen, and experimented extensively to achieve those goals.

We believe that experimentation is crucial for successful agile adoptions. It is equally important that feedback loops be short so teams can try and fail (and learn) fast. In that spirit we tirelessly worked with the Team to find the optimum work in progress limits that helped reach the goal of simultaneously completing customer onboarding requests, on time, and tending to the ever-growing backlog in a sustainable manner. As a result of these experiments, however,  overall cycle time temporarily went up. While that may seem counterintuitive, this is to be expected during an agile adoption – teams must "go slow to go fast," unlearning sub-optimal behaviors before replacing them with more effective practices.

After a few iterations of experimentation, the Team, along with leadership, eventually formulated effective, tested, and sustainable solutions to help them ramp up their performance (Phase 3). This entailed the creation of automated tools,  and training the Sales team to use these automated tools in a distributed and delegated fashion, to seamlessly onboard the new clients themselves. This greatly reduced, and even in some cases eliminated, the FSC’s dependence on the Team to onboard new clients.

They were able to turn that perception around and build tools that empowered the most negatively impacted stakeholders, people who then went on to become champions for the Team themselves.

As an outcome, the Team, along with leadership, found that these innovative solutions optimized the flow and reduced cycle time by approximately 80% compared to Phase 1. Sales and customer complaints and escalations to leadership were greatly reduced as a result. The Team also expressed increased happiness because they were no longer the "bad guys" who hindered success. Instead, they were able to turn that perception around and build tools that empowered the most negatively impacted stakeholders, people who then went on to become champions for the Team themselves – a negative downward cycle now turned virtuous.

Throughout the three phases, our three-legged stool approach to agile adoptions was instrumental to making this a sustainable success. We took the time to train and educate everyone involved, including leadership; promoted tested processes and optimized them to reflect the Team’s needs and their context; introduced new technologies to ease visualization and metrics gathering; and made sure quality was built into the processes used, by promoting practices such as Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Deployment (CD), along with pair programming.

The solutions that we crafted in partnership with the FSC were made to last. Coupled with the new, yet strong, culture of continuous improvement, the Team became one of the best performing groups and are on their way to being a positive role model to others at the company.

We look forward to seeing how these successes inspire others to be agile rather than do agile.