The Lean-Agile approach to software development was originally intended for smaller team projects, but it has shown potential benefits for large projects and enterprises. However, when integrating Agile practices in large-scale enterprises, there are various concerns regarding complexity and scalability.
Research has shown that Lean-Agile transformation can reduce time-to-market by (at least) 40%, but scaling is not just about maximizing team efficiency – it is about differentiating the business from prior operating models. Scaling Lean Agile requires extending Lean Agile principles beyond IT and Agile software development to the rest of the business because it can bring about immense benefits at every level of the enterprise. On the other hand, it also welcomes additional challenges that the process of implementing Lean Agile in a single team brings.
Let’s take a look at what scaling Lean Agile means, what it requires, common challenges faced by enterprises scaling Lean Agile, and how to overcome them.
What is Scaling Lean and Agile?
Scaling Lean Agile refers to the process of implementing Lean thinking and translating Agile methods (such as Scrum and Kanban) to larger groups of people within the enterprise. According to SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), traditional Agile teams work best with groups of 5-11 team members. However, as enterprises see success in such small groups, they want to see success at an organizational level, and that is where scaling Lean Agile comes into play. But such scaling isn’t as simple as just applying Agile principles to a whole department or organization. When scaling Lean Agile, there are several attributes to consider as an enterprise creates programs that implement Agile processes. These attributes include:
- Size of the team
- Role specialization
- Product owner role
- User role
- Length of iteration
- Program synchronized cadence
- Batch size
- Release definition
- Definition of Ready / Definition of Done
Each one of these components plays a significant role in successful Agile scaling. However, getting everything right is a complicated mission, which is why many organizations guide their efforts by using a scaling Agile framework.
Lean Agile transformation for teams, managers, leaders, and suppliers must be considered in a large-scale Lean Agile transformation because of the changing organizational structure and number of people involved. The reasons behind this are:
- Moving away from traditional leadership and management to Lean Agile mindset-oriented facilitation of workflow.
- Moving away from the traditional team structure to more Lean Agile teams.
- Moving away from project structure to Lean Agile transparency, portfolio, and focused flow.
- Moving away from traditional funding and financial structures towards Lean and Agile budgeting approaches.
Enterprises spending time, resources, and budget on Lean Agile transformation must understand that transformation means being in a maturity state where every part of the transformation scope is completely aware of the transformation purpose, goals, focus, and efforts required to apply a full transformation. Otherwise, only the teams will be transformed, and the transformation will be partial. Leaders and managers aren’t included in the transformation scope and are separately trained on the Agile and Lean mindset.
What must large-scale Lean Agile transformations include?
There are several key things that large-scale Lean and Agile transformations must include, and those are:
- A specific set of people as part of the transformation scope – leadership, management, teams, support teams, and suppliers.
- Deep and broad metrics that reflect the transformation progress, mindset, value-delivery, and maturity with continuous improvement.
- Basic building blocks of Lean and Agile practices, as well as considering Lean Agile methodologies that can be combined, such as Agile Scrum and Kanban boards, as well as Extreme Programming for Delivery Pipeline and Continuous Integration (CI) approach.
- A timeline for a set of goals as the organization evolves towards adopting Lean Agile practices through a Value-Stream approach.
Benefits of Scaling Lean Agile
The benefits of scaling Agile outweigh the challenges that include major technology, work management, and cultural shifts. They can be both intangible and tangible – from attracting top talent to better ROI, or from higher customer value and satisfaction to faster time to market, etc.
1. Employee engagement
Scaling Agile is rooted in autonomy and trust at the individual and team level. People have autonomy when it comes to deciding how they will deliver their work and are informed about how their contributions impact the overall business goals. That autonomy and trust translate to more engaged and satisfied employees, which benefits the business with greater productivity and lower turnover rates.
2. Improve capacity management
Capacity management refers to balancing workload and availability. With a scaled Agile approach, capacity management is aligned to teams of teams, or ARTs and reevaluated regularly (typically every quarter). This helps retain the focus on creating value while allowing for change and flexibility and empowering enterprise leaders to rebalance and reflect regularly with minimal disruption to organizational flow. Enterprise management benefits from stable and persistent teams with historical metrics around work delivery, enabling them to make informed decisions about who can take on what kind of work and how much of it.
3. Align strategy and work
Clear alignment between the enterprise’s top-level objectives with the employees responsible for meeting them creates various downstream effects, such as:
- Enabling faster response times
- Boost cross-team coordination
- Increasing agility (if the market shifts or priorities change)
- Fostering transparency
Scaling Agile with SAFe emphasizes creating ARTs (Agile Release Trains), otherwise known as a value stream, ensuring that everyone in the enterprise is centered on maximizing value for customers.
4. Enable organization-wide visibility
Scaling Agile helps connect and visualize work from every team, thus enabling enterprise-wide transparency. Leaders and managers also get a big-picture view into potential roadblocks and bottlenecks and can make better-informed decisions on how to allocate work properly. Everyone can consistently and clearly see how a team of teams, ARTs or value streams deliver, measure their progress, and gauge their work’s financial impact.
5. Facilitate team of teams planning
Scaling Agile methodologies on the enterprise level involve bringing people from different departments and functions together under the same umbrella to plan together. It may occur with different departments (like Dev and Ops) or across an entire portfolio within the enterprise, but it always requires greater coordination and alignment. Scaling Agile frameworks use prescribed planning events to solve this challenge, as such events bring cross-functional / cross-domain teams together to identify risks, highlight potential dependencies, and build plans that deliver against top-level objectives. By giving everyone involved clear visibility into quarterly deliverables, these planning events play a critical role in Scaling Agile into the enterprise.
Complete vs. Partial Lean Agile Transformation
A Lean and Agile transformation can be considered either as complete or partial.
Complete Lean Agile transformations require proper considerations regarding structure, strategy, goals, vision, and transformation scope. They may adopt an existing Scaling Agile Framework (SAFe) and transform by introducing the business line (leaders, managers, development teams, support teams, project teams, and suppliers), roles that will need to support the transformation, roadmap, the topic of transformation, and intended steps.
On the other hand, partial Lean and Agile transformations may focus on the team-level transformation (putting more effort on optimizing cross-functional teams first) more than on the leadership and management. Even though this may look like a great start, partial transformations don’t address the leaders and develop the entire business line for change and self-organization maturity state in the long-term. In partial Lean Agile transformations, the continuation of system thinking and system-level impediments is absent via a common framework.
Common Challenges when Scaling Agile
The most critical Lean and Agile transition challenges aren’t technological in nature, but rather people-oriented and social. The essential prerequisites enterprises and their leaders need to embrace before executing large-scale Lean Agile transformations are:
- Having a convincing reason for change
- Defining business goals
- People buy-in
- Initial training
- Pilot project selection
- Pre-startup assessment
- Team set up
Implementing and inspiring change in small teams is one thing, but transforming how an enterprise thinks and executes work is something else. When they choose to scale their Agile software development, even the most forward-thinking enterprises and sophisticated Agile teams face barriers. Lean Agile transformation challenges are typically categorized into three groups – technology, work management, and culture.
1. Shift in technology
Tech silos are the enemy of a Scaling Agile methodology, and enterprises that want to scale Lean and Agile need to address their technology. Scaling Agile across the organization both creates and requires increased information flow, transparency, and visibility. For most enterprises, that means evaluating and replacing or augmenting existing tech solutions. Suppose corporate objectives, capacity planning, and financials are in one tool, while work delivery is tracked in another tool. In that case, it means that delivery teams are disconnected from the enterprise’s strategic goals. Tech tools should be there to support alignment at a tactical level, and even if the workflows and culture are in place, teams cannot scale their Agile method if they don’t have the tech solutions to underpin their work. And which type of technology can facilitate scaling Agile depends on the enterprise’s Agile maturity.
In case the enterprise already supports more than one Agile team, scaling Agile may mean finding and implementing a tech solution that can connect multiple teams for improved flow and transparency. Other enterprises may need a more robust solution that goes beyond team visibility. You should look for tools that allow collaboration and information to flow in both directions. Also, it’s essential that the technology can scale with the organization – what’s right for your enterprise today may not be suitable in a few years.
2. Shift in work management
In order to scale its Agile delivery, the company’s culture shift will need to align the organization with the core principles of the Agile Manifesto that the employees are willing to do their best-possible work and maximize the customer value provided. Shifting their work management methods is necessary to turn those principles into reality and enable value to flow. Traditional project management and work approaches begin with a fixed scope and estimate the resources and time necessary to achieve that work scope. In other words, the traditional approach has enterprises assuming that they can increase success and reduce risk by defining requirements upfront.
On the other hand, Lean Agile project management flips that assumption – resources and time become fixed through established teams of people and iteration windows, while the scope of work becomes fluid and influenced by constant change and learning. Teams learn more quickly because of the continuous feedback and experimentation, which allows them to adjust the scope of work accordingly and adapt in a nimble manner.
When scaling Agile, enterprises can shift their approach to work management by:
- Evolving management style to a more open-style leadership (and getting rid of the command-and-control approach).
- Adopting a more horizontal communication style (instead of going with top-down communication).
- Adjusting budgeting practices to being determined by value stream (instead of being project-driven).
- Adapting the Project Management Office (PMO) role to being the connecting element that promotes knowledge across the organization (instead of being the force that dictates how work gets done).
3. Shift in culture
Agile is not a set of practices, but a shared mindset or culture based on the Agile Manifesto. The shared mindset behind the Lean Agile transformation is more important than the framework used to scale. However, creating such a mindset can be a challenge because the elements of culture come together to create a mutually reinforcing system. Also, they combine to prevent any attempt to change it. Making single fix changes at the team level will appear to generate progress. However, all the elements of an enterprise’s organizational culture will, eventually, take over, and any changes made will be drawn back into the existing culture. In other words, one of the main causes of transformation failure is the failure to change company culture.
Leaders must understand the Agile Lean methodology because scaling the Agile development cycle starts with company leadership. This means that leaders must prioritize flow, value, and continuous improvement over requirements and milestones. They need to embrace the idea of learning from ongoing change and be ready to adjust their management styles. Leaders need to set the team capacity and strategic objectives, then trust their teams to meet those objectives in ways that work best for them. This way, leaders support accountability and autonomy – the fundamental Agile principles and essential elements of scaling Agile.
Scaling Agile Frameworks
Scaling Agile frameworks are methodologies established and designed to address the challenges of implementing large-scale Lean and Agile transformations. They provide enterprises with a roadmap to scaling in an effective and efficient way. Different scaling frameworks have been developed to help address common problems with organizational interdependencies, team size, and other issues, such as lack of customer involvement and interaction that typically arise in large-scale Lean Agile adoptions. Some of these frameworks include SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), LeSS (Large Scale, Lean Agile Scrum), DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery), and many others that use a combination of Lean and Agile approaches to overcome common challenges.
SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is a knowledge base of proven, integrated competencies, practices, values, and principles for achieving business agility. It incorporates practices from DevOps, Lean, Agile, XP (Extreme Programming), Scrum, and Kanban boards into a prescriptive framework that utilizes portfolio management tools, values, and principles. SAFe is an established approach to scaling agile, and it includes planning at the portfolio, program, and team level. Such prescriptive structure is designed to support large organizations with multiple teams together and helps ease Agile adoption.
The framework introduced the idea of ART (Agile Release Train) to structure work across teams consisting of 50-125 people and the RTE (Release Train Engineer) as the role at its helm. SAFe requires consistent 2- and 10-week iterations, which can prove ambitious for enterprises new to the practices but can work well for those with an established Agile practice.
Disciplined Agile (DA) is a people-first Agile process decision framework. It puts individuals first and offers lightweight guidance to help teams optimize their workflows and processes according to each specific project’s needs. It is oriented more as a foundational approach to Agile than a guide for scaling Agile and is less prescriptive than SAFe. Disciplined Agile emphasizes team roles, as well as a goal-driven approach that makes it more flexible than other frameworks.
Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) is a framework that helps tackle the challenge of scaling Agile Scrum. It helps enterprises find out how to apply the elements, purpose, and principles of Scrum in a large-scale context. LeSS is well-recognized as an approach for enterprises that already use Scrum practices and want to be scaling and/or implementing Agile in a robust and streamlined way.
Scrum at Scale is a framework created by the co-creator of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland. It is a lightweight scaling framework known for minimum viable bureaucracy (thanks to its scale-free architecture), and it follows core concepts, including a focus on linear scalability, teams of 5 people, and an emphasis on reducing decision-making time. Scrum at Scale combines the Scrum Master Cycle and the Product Owner development cycle in order to coordinate the efforts of all teams across the enterprise.
However, none of these approaches (or their alternatives) are right or wrong when it comes to scaling Agile. The best framework depends on the personality, background, and needs of the business and the teams. Each of these approaches scale the Agile and Lean methodology in its own way, but they all acknowledge that scaling Agile is a challenging process with roadblocks that every enterprise must overcome.
Many experts would argue that both Lean Agile and traditional plan-based methods have their strengths and weaknesses in Lean software development. Plan-based methods are more viable for small or large projects where interdependencies are sequential and result from the serial nature of the workflow. On the other hand, Agile approaches are better for projects with small team sizes with reciprocal interdependencies and exist when two or more parties depend on each other. For companies that are entirely new to Agile, it’s recommended to use methods that combine aspects of both Agile and plan-based methods (hybrid approach). That way, they will not sacrifice the stability provided by traditional approaches and will be able to leverage some of the benefits of scaling Agile.
The SAFe journey begins with education and training. The place to start is the i4 Group – a transformation consulting and training firm. Sign up your leadership stakeholders and core change agents to be trained in SAFe and the concepts it is based on. Once they’ve been trained and understand the journey, they will be able to work with experts and design a transformation roadmap for the enterprise.