Agile Transformation Success Story at Valpak

November 22, 2013
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As a consultant, I have witnessed numerous organizations struggling with implementing agile. Agile fail patterns is a topic I have written about often (here, here, and here). Every now and then, I stumble across a company that is having great success with agile. One of the best success stories I have ever seen is from Valpak, out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Since they are right in my back yard, I was able to visit with them in person. Valpak’s transformation from a pure waterfall shop to an agile organization is a textbook example of how to drive change within an organization. Stephanie Stewart, Director of Agile Leadership at Valpak, shared with me her agile transformation story, which is summarized below.

The first try

Valpak was a typical waterfall shop with the typical waterfall problems: missed dates, too much unplanned work, business and IT alignment issues, etc. The first attempt at agile was a half-baked, grassroots effort that had them dabbling with Scrum just enough to be dangerous. It was broken. The bottom-up approach to agile was not working well because not everyone saw the need to change the way they had always built software. Without the proper level of authority and executive-level support, it was a struggle to get everyone on the same page.

A few pilot projects tried agile with mixed results. They were doing four-week sprints preceded by two-week requirements gathering sessions across a team of 40+ people who were not even dedicated to just that project. Other teams saw some of the struggles, which led to pockets of resistance. The CIO and some of his direct reports realized that Valpak needed to bring in some experts to assist in training and transformation. Around this same time, a new company president entered the scene and brought with him servant leadership concepts, which are very well aligned with agile. The timing was perfect for a transformation.

Getting it right the second time

Valpak regrouped and began planning to transform the entire organization. Both the president and the CIO socialized what the future state would look like. One on one meetings were held in which the senior leadership listened to the concerns and issues of the staff and started to build trust throughout the organization. After many attempts and mixed results, there was still a lot of anxiety over implementing agile. The leadership team said “let’s just try it,” and the journey began.

After the initial pilot attempt failed, the leadership team courageously went “all in” instead of trying the typical pilot team method again. As Stephanie described it, they decided to “rip the Band-Aid off fast” and have all of the teams go through the transformation at the same time. They invested in training across the entire organization and reorganized the company around eight agile teams. They brought in agile coaches from Agile Thought and embedded them with the team to help in the transformation.

All of a sudden, deadlines were no longer being missed. Teams were able to adapt to changes in the business. Software was being delivered faster and with better quality. Unplanned work was no longer causing teams to spin out of control. Sprint retrospectives were held regularly, which was instrumental to sharing lessons learned, continuously improving the process, and furthering the transformation. Every week, teams demo some of their deliverables to all of the other teams. Every quarter, the business reviews the portfolio and manages the priorities of the corporate epics.

One thing I found unique at Valpak is that all eight teams are on the exact same two-week sprint schedule, something they refer to as the “common sprint schedule.” This strategy makes for a very efficient enterprise. One of the challenges I have seen in many organizations is trying to schedule people’s time. At Valpak, everyone knows exactly when they are needed for sprint reviews, demos, perspectives, scrums, etc., because they have a very consistent schedule throughout each two-week sprint cycle. Support teams like operations, enterprise architecture, systems administration, DBAs, etc. can more easily stay in tune with all eight project teams since the schedule for all teams is consistent and predictable. This is a great way to remove waste from the organization. This may be hard to accomplish in larger organizations with many more teams, but I see this as a huge contributor to the overall success of their agile process. Consistency and predictability!

What successful agile looks like

The morale at Valpak looked very high. Everyone I talked to was passionate about agile. They all described how much better the working environment is now as compared to how things were back in the waterfall days. Today they are in constant process improvement mode. Continuous integration is a key focal point now, as they continue to improve the delivery mechanisms through automation, metrics gathering, monitoring, and retrospectives.

When I asked how they handled unplanned work, they said it is the product owners’ decision to decide how much time and money to invest in dealing with non-planned activities. When major issues occur that disrupt the schedule, the business makes the call whether to stop the current sprint to focus on the issues at hand and communicate any date commitment changes to the organization. That brought a smile to my face. It tells me that the business and IT share accountability. When things break, it is the entire team that owns it, not just IT.

Valpak is very active in the community, working with other local companies to share their lessons learned. They are passionate about agile and are constantly looking for ways to improve. The following video is a great overview of their transformation:

 

Key takeaways

Valpak’s story is a great case study for companies seeking to become more agile. Here are the keys that drove their success.

  • Strong executive support
  • Focus on organizational change management
  • One on one meetings with all staff
  • “All in” approach—all teams invested in the success
  • Leveraged external training and coaches
  • Viewed as a company initiative, not just an IT initiative
  • Product owners are accountable for delivery and prioritization
  • Consistent processes across all teams
  • Sprints allocate time for unplanned work
  • Constant reinforcement of best practices and continuous process improvement
  • Celebration of successes.

For those of you in the Tampa Bay area who would love to learn from Valpak and other agile enthusiasts, Stephanie heads up the Tampa Bay Agile Meetup group. You can sign up here. You can also continue to follow the Valpak journey on Stephanie’s blog, as she continues to share lessons learned with her readers.

Mike Kavis (34 Posts)

Mike is a VP/Principal Architect for Cloud Technology Partners. Mike has served in numerous technical roles such as CTO, Chief Architect, and VP positions with over 25 years of experience in software development and architecture. A pioneer in cloud computing, Mike led a team that built the world's first high speed transaction network in Amazon's public cloud and won the 2010 AWS Global Startup Challenge. An expert in cloud security, Mike is currently writing a book for Wiley Publishing called "Architecting the Cloud: Design Decisions for Cloud Computing Service Models (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS)" which is expected to be released in late 2013.

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