As a CIO, when your managing director takes time to publicise your achievements, you know that you’re doing something right. This is exactly what Yarra Valley Water’s MD, Pat McCafferty did when he nominated his IT chief, Leigh Berrell, for the CIO50 list this year.
Berrell joined the Victorian water organisation in April 2011 around the time when staff satisfaction with IT services was at its lowest at 30 per cent. In May 2016, it had jumped to 86 per cent under Berrell’s leadership.
“The IT team’s culture continues to improve year-on-year and is now comparable to other parts of the organisation,” McCafferty says in the submission.
“At the same time, the cost of IT has been steadily decreasing year-on-year, while IT are delivering innovations to internal users and our customers at an ever increasing rate. In the last year, our IT spend was 13 per cent below budget while the IT project portfolio is expected to deliver 190 per cent return on investment,” McCafferty says.
No doubt hearing about these incredible returns from the IT group is music to the ears of any MD or CEO. A key initiative that has helped improve the culture and lift in performance of the organisation’s IT group has been the adoption of Agile delivery methods across its software development and support operation.
Although there was nothing ‘broken’ about the way the IT team was operating, there was significant overhead when it came to delivering projects, says Berrell.
“There was a story going around in the organisation that every time you wanted to change something on a form, it would cost you $10,000. There was an element of truth in that; we tended to be quite a risk-averse organisation,” Berrell says.
The new way of working was first tested inside the team that maintains Yarra Valley Water’s Oracle billing system. This group includes offshore developers located in the Philippines.
“We have Oracle contractors in the office who are pretty stuck in their ways of doing things,” says Berrell. “We put in a few guys who were really good at Agile but they were like bulldozers; they would come in and sort of ‘land clear’ to get stuff done rather than bring people along on the ride.
“It isn’t the way we normally operate but we felt we really needed to shift the mindset and it worked really well.”
This team was typically running quarterly software releases, which included new functionality and bug fixes. Team members used a traditional ‘waterfall’ approach – dictated partly by their use of developers based in the Oracle office – and believed that a change to this model would be too costly.
But the introduction of Agile processes has significantly sped up the software release cycle at the organisation. In Q1 of last financial year, there was one release and by Q4, the team was delivering three to four releases per month.
The cost of delivering change has reduced by around 20 per cent – changes are delivering exactly what was requested and no errors have arisen from any of the 12 releases in 2016.
The next step in Yarra Valley Water’s agile journey is underway with the adoption of Scaled Agile for Enterprise (SAFe). This will transform the way the IT team plans and schedules work and it’s expected to lead to even greater efficiencies and better business outcomes with the team and across the organisation.
“We’ve now got around 50 people engaged in an Agile release training concept and most of our work is now running through this. We are seeing a good correlation between what we set out to do and what we are achieving – we are hitting between 85 and 90 per cent of our planned goals.”
Agile delivery methods also give the organisation more certainty around cost, says Berrell.
“We are now resource-constrained; we can only do as much work as those 50 people can do as opposed to the old ways where we would just get up a whole bunch of projects and just keep bringing people in … now we know exactly what it costs to run a train for a sprint. It’s much easier to measure and plan from a dollars perspective.”
Testing the water
As with many government organisations, Yarra Valley Water isn’t under any particular pressure to be innovative.
“We are in a weird situation where we could sit back if we wanted to, rest on our laurels and do nothing because we’re a geographic government monopoly and frankly the world doesn’t expect a lot from the government,” says Berrell.
“If we slacked off, no one would care but we would care. So as an organisation, we really have a strong strategic push for exceptional performance and outcomes for our customers and communities.”
The cost of water has skyrocketed in Victoria over the last 10 years with the addition of the desalination plant and people are really starting to feel the pinch, says Berrell.
“We know we can’t just keep putting up the price of water as a response to external stimulus. So what we need to do is become far more efficient.”
Yarra Valley Water is adopting a mindset that it is working in a highly competitive market environment where it needs to innovate to remain viable.
“If you take that mindset, you start to come up with some interesting ideas that you wouldn’t do otherwise,” Berrell says.
Last year, the organisation completed a digital strategy, which resulted in the delivery of several innovations. Around 6,000 customers are registering each month to use a customer self-service portal which lets them manage their accounts around-the-clock.
Meter 360, which was released in August and developed over 12 weeks, is a data visualisation system that helps customer service agents and service delivery planners to triage meter-related issues quickly.
The organisation has also built a system to manage the completion and booking of hundreds of recycled water inspections each month; and a mobile phone app that lets authorised staff check in and out of restricted sites through self-service.
Finally, an ideation portal known as “The Hub” allows all staff to lodge ideas and concerns and crowd-source solutions across the company. More than 150 ideas have been posted, many of which have been implemented or accepted for future implementation.
“At any point in time, the Victorian government might want to privatise water. We want to be the people who are in the driver’s seat if that ever happens. Even if it doesn’t … we realise we are the biggest water utility in Victoria and the third biggest in Australia so from that perspective we want to actually drive what is happening down here.
“Secondly if we are investing millions into IT ever year and if those investments never go any further than the border of our service area, that’s a poor outcome for the government. So we are really trying to lift the game of the industry and lift our own game as well.
“To do that, you’ve got to actually pull the industry along with you.”