Can infrastructure be Agile?

Agile is still most commonly associated with software development projects, but the management methods and culture change of Agile don't have to be limited to delivering working code to internal or external customers.

Telstra's Infrastructure Delivery group – the "front door" into Enterprise and Infrastructure Services for "consulting, design and implementation activities for infrastructure and network integration", as Anna Leibel, the group's general manager, puts it – has undertaken a dramatic shift in how it works, adopting Agile methods and achieving a dramatic reduction in cycle times for delivering capabilities to its customers within the telco.

Addressing Agile Australia 2013, Lalitha Biddulph, the head of Enterprise Services, said that her division had a strategy of customer advocacy: delivering services in a way that would turn customers into champions of the division.

But the feedback from customers is not always so great: "You take too long. You cost too much. I'm going to Amazon because they do it fast. You know, it's too hard to engage with you – I'm just going to put a few servers under my desk."

But Enterprise Services had a vision, and it was that "as soon as a customer wanted it, they get onto a catalogue, they order it, and they get it."

"We were going to create this environment where everything was going to be instant and we were going to have really happy customers because they got what they paid for, they got what they asked for," Biddulph said.

And achieving that vision was going to begin with one team: Leibel Infrastructure Delivery group.

When Leibel joined the team, Infrastructure Delivery "had been operating the same way for a long time". It had a set of detailed processes with hefty amounts of documentation, an intimidating backlog and an average cycle time of 212 days to deliver on a customer request.

The team was very reactive when Leibel joined – her phone would ring eight to 12 times a day and she would spend the whole time "fire fighting".

"What we needed as a team was a new operating model to take us into the future... to reduce our cycle time and reduce our cost to deliver, and create a customer-centric environment," Leibel said.

The team was expensive to run, and had skills-based silos. Delivery was inconsistent – some projects were done well and others badly – and there was a lengthy engagement process for internal customers: an elaborate online form with a number of mandatory fields.

"We really helped created that order-taking mentality because we actually asked what hardware you were after, so we didn't actually ask about the business requirement," Leibel said.

At the suggestion of a team member, Infrastructure Delivery looked at upending its existing operating model and implementing an Agile workcell system in place of its existing skills-based silos.

It began with experiments to learn what worked. This started with the team's network design function, which represents about 50 per cent of Infrastructure Delivery's workload and had a significant backlog.

Agile coaches sat with teams to help with the process and spot opportunities for efficiencies, and instead of the previous approach of starting lots of projects but not delivering them on time, one project was undertaken at a time by a team and finished before moving on to the next. The number of tools was reduced and documentation was rationalised.

A second experiment looked at how Delivery could assist Agile projects in other groups that had infrastructure requirements. A third experiment, using a new operating model, focussed on the process of gathering requirements from customers, and again reducing waste, and consolidating and rationalising requirement gathering documentation and design documents (going from 50-odd pages to SOAP – 'solution on a page').

The reduced cycle times and costs made a clear case for adopting Agile within the team. Leibel said Infrastructure Delivery went with a phased, slower approach rather than a 'big bang' with its transition to Agile. Now instead of the previous silos, the team has workcells with a mixed composition that includes a business relationship manager who owns the relationship with the stakeholders in a project.

Workcells are self-organised and instead of having work allocated will pull work: "If people have capacity, [they] go up to the Kanban wall, go to our backlog, which has been prioritised, and they pick up the next piece of work," Leibel said. Teams have become decision-makers and no longer have to turn to a manager for direction, and waste has been crushed.

The end result: Cycle times have been slashed from 212 days to 42, Leibel said.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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