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The Agile Flywheel

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Readers of The Agile Executive have been exposed to the “All In!” strategy used by Erik Huddleston to transform the software engineering process at Inovis and make it uniquely streamlined. In this post we follow up on the original discussion of the subject to explore the effect of Agile on IT Operations. As the title implies, Agile at Inovis served as a flywheel which created the momentum required to transform IT Operations and blend the best of Agile with the best of ITIL.

This guest post was written by Ray Riescher – a Six Sigma Black Belt, Agile evangelist and a business process change agent. Ray is currently responsible for business process management and IT governance at Inovis, a  leading provider of business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce services, in Alpharetta, GA

Here is Ray:

When we converted to an Agile Scrum software methodology some 24 months ago, I never imagined the lessons I’d learn and the organizational change that would be driven by the adoption of Scrum.

I’ve lived by the philosophy that managing a business is managing its processes and that all of those processes, especially the operational processes, are interconnected.  However, I don’t think I was fully prepared for effect Agile Scrum would have on our company operations.

We dove head first into Agile Scrum and adapted to it very quickly. However, it wasn’t until we landed a very large and demanding customer that Scrum was really put to the test. New enhancements, new features, and new configurations were all needed ASAP.  Scrum delivered with rapid development and deployment in the form of releases that were moving into production with amazing velocity. Our release cadence hit warp drive and at one point we experienced several months where multiple teams’ production releases were deploying at the end of every two week sprint.

We’ve subscribed to the ITIL service support processes for Release, Change, Incident, Problem and Configuration Management. ITIL has served us well, giving us a common language and a clear understanding of process boundaries.

As the Scrum release cadence kicked in, the downstream ITIL processes had to keep up, adapt, and support the dynamics of rapid production changes.  What happened was enlightening and maybe a bit ground breaking.

The Release Management process had to reassess its reliance on artifacts for gate keeping. The levels of sign offs had to be streamlined, the heavyweight deployment documentation had to be lightened, yet the process still had to control the production release to ensure deployment success.  The rapidity of the release cycles meant that maintenance window downtime would be experienced too frequently by customers, so “rolling bounce” deployment strategies were devised and implemented.

Change requests could no longer wait for a weekly Change Management review board to approve and schedule the changes.  Change management risk models had to be relied on for accurate detection of risky changes.

Early on in this dynamic environment, we weren’t quite as good as we needed to be and our Incident Management process was put to the test.  Faster releases meant more opportunity for problems with service degradation and outages. This reality manifested itself more frequently than we’d ever experienced. Monitoring, detecting and repairing became paramount for environment stability and customer satisfaction.

What we found out was that we became very agile at this break/fix game. We developed a small team approach to managing incidents and leveraged the ITIL Problem Management process to rapidly perform root cause analysis. Once the true root cause was determined, a fix would be defined and deployed. Sometimes the fix was software related and went through the Scrum process, sometimes the fix was hardware related and went through the Configuration Management process, other times it was more operational and the fix took the form of training or corrections to procedural documentation.

The point is we’ve become agile across the entire IT spectrum. Whether it’s development via Scrum, the velocity with which we now operate our ITIL processes, or the integrated break/fix operational support processes, we are performing all of these with an agile mindset and discipline. We have small teams, working on priorities, and completing what needs to be completed now.

Scrum set the flywheel in motion and caused the rest of the IT process life cycle to respond.  ITIL’s processes still form the solid core of service support and we’ve improved the processes’ capability to handle intense work velocity. The organization adapted by developing unprecedented speed in the ability to deliver production fixes and to solve root cause problems with agility.

What I think we are witnessing is a manifestation of Agile Business Service Management; a holistic agile methodology running across the IT process spectrum that’s delivering eye popping change and tremendous results.

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Three Criteria for Qualifying as Agile

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Agile methods have been gaining popularity to the extent that one sees the term Agile used beyond the domain of software methods. Agile Infrastructure and Agile Business Service Management were used in this blog and elsewhere. Recently I have seen the term used in the domain of Business Process Management (BPM). For example, a presentations entitled Best Practices for Agile BPM will be delivered in the forthcoming Gartner Group Business Process Management Summit 2010.

I have no doubt the term Agile will be adopted in various fields. Using BPM as an example, I propose the following three criteria to differentiate between agile (small A) and Agile (capital A):

  1. Beyond software: A software team carrying out a BPM initiative might use Agile methods. This fact to itself does not suffice to make the initiative Agile BPM.
  2. Methodical specificity: Roles, forums/ceremonies and artifacts for the BPM initiative must be specified. Folks might be already applying Lean, TOC or other approaches to BPM, but a definitive Agile BPM method has not crystalized yet.
  3. Values: Adherence in spirit to the four principles of the Agile Manifesto. Replace the word “software” with “product” in the manifesto (just two occurences!) and you get a universal value statement that is not restricted to “just” software. It applies to BPM as well as to any other field in which products are produced and used.

You might be impressively agile in what you do but it does not necessarily make you Agile. The pace by which you do things must be anchored in a broader perspective that incorporates customers and employees. A forthcoming post entitled Indivisibility of the Principles of Operation will explore the connection between the Agile values (plural) you hold and the business value (singular) you generate.