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Book Review and Q&A on "Standing on Shoulders: A Leader's Guide to Digital Transformation"

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Key Takeaways

  • The book aims to help senior leaders understand how to develop their strategies, plan for resources, and lead their organizations through a digital transformation in a sustainable way.
  • Value stream mapping allows clearly identifying where the constraints are in the flow of value and therefore focus our attention and resources on them.
  • Working remotely is putting even more emphasis on fundamental principles such as making work visible by tracking work in our pipelines and making information visible in tools and artifacts across the value stream.
  • Teams now measuring flow begin to see which parts of their remote processes are better than their previously colocated processes and where new bottlenecks may be occurring which need to be addressed.
  • The software delivery pipeline is likely the most important internal product in a company but is often neither treated as a product nor architected for speed.

The book “Standing on Shoulders: A Leader’s Guide to Digital Transformation” by Jack Maher and Carmen DeArdo provides an introduction to relevant thinking and practices on how to identify and address the major bottlenecks and concerns for transforming organizations.

InfoQ reached out to Maher and DeArdo to know more about their industry experience applying these ideas, and how the move to remote working might change, or not, our approach to digital transformation.

InfoQ: How would you define “digital transformation”?

Jack Maher: Digital transformation is thinking about what you do and how you do it in a new way that leverages the new reality of how we interact with our ecosystems of associates, customers, and stakeholders. It’s about a focus on our core mission and the value that we create and deliver, and using practices and approaches that accelerate speed to value. In today’s world there is a technology component to every organization, leveraging contemporary practices and tools enable us to deliver the capabilities more quickly and with significantly better quality and security.

InfoQ: What was the gap you saw between existing literature and your own industry experience on how to succeed with digital transformation?

Maher: We saw that many organizations were implementing pieces and parts, but without the understanding of how they really worked together. As a result, opportunities to gain the synergy of the combinations weren’t realized, and many times decisions to retain parts of the “old ways” were significantly diminishing the realization of the desired results and outcomes. 

InfoQ: You are both experienced technology practitioners. How much of the book is based on what you saw at different organizations you worked for?

Maher: The book is almost completely based on what we personally saw and experienced. We had a broad range of exposure within many organizations and had the opportunity to participate in many different roles and industries. We were very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in many cases, and to have the support and opportunity to work with very talented people, and to be able to experiment and learn along with very smart and passionate people who shared our vision of making significant improvements.

Carmen DeArdo:  As we started to write the chapters, I was surprised actually about how much I related back to my Bell Labs experiences. In many ways, Bell Labs was ahead of the curve in the practices used last century to deliver high performance and available systems. Walter Shewhart started at Bell Labs at its inception (1925) and his work in statistical quality control helped create a culture of continuous improvement at Bell Labs which was pervasive.

InfoQ: What’s the role of DevOps in a digital transformation?

Maher: DevOps is the catalyst that has driven the synergy that results from bringing the best ideas from Lean, Agile, and the capabilities and maturity that has been realized in contemporary technology. When we look at the organizations that have been the disruptors of their industries over time, a key component has been game changing technology. They didn’t just improve what was in place, they redefined expectations. Never again would we consider using mail order, when we were able to order online, for example. 

DeArdo:  DevOps provides the practices that can be used on the journey to accelerate the delivery and protection of business value. These practices can be applied based on where bottlenecks exist to improve flow and also value and quality. Investing in debt not only improves flow but also team happiness which is key to improving productivity.

InfoQ: Your book leans strongly on value stream mapping. Why do you find that method so important?

Maher: Value stream mapping is an incredibly powerful tool to understand when and where we create and deliver value. When we look at value through the eyes of our customer we can make much better decisions about how to best anticipate and satisfy their needs. Additionally, the power of clearly identifying where we have constraints in the flow of value enables us to focus our attention and resources on those things that will best improve that flow.

DeArdo: In addition, Forrester has created a new category of value stream management that compliments value stream mapping in providing flow metrics from the digital information stored in the artifacts of the tool chain from ideation through to release. 

InfoQ: What are your reference books on value stream mapping and what's different about your approach?

Maher: A lot of it was based on Lean practices from experience in the culture of a company I worked for for many years, especially during the time we were a part of Kawasaki Steel. That said, there was a moment of clarity for me when I read Karen Martin and Mike Osterling’s book “Value Stream Mapping”. I consider it essential reading.

At Nationwide, my role of developing a lean and agile technology delivery methodology enabled me to apply the Deterministic Process Design concepts I had begun to explore at Penn State of applying automation to any business process. This was then further fueled by exciting conversations with Mik Kersten, CEO of Tasktop, and his team about how we might be able to use their technology to realize this vision of integrating systems along the entire value stream to enable true artifact flow and end-to-end visibility. And so, I consider the book “Project to Product” by Mik to be the new standard reading for the bigger picture of value stream management.

DeArdo: Deming’s “Out of the Crisis” remains a classic read. Shook/Rother “Learning to See” provides great background on visibility. Of course, “The Goal” and “The Phoenix Project” have a focus on flow that educated me and I agree with Jack on “Project to Product” being the new standard.

InfoQ: You have a new book coming out, is that right? Can you give us a sneak peek?

Maher: Yes, “Standing On Shoulders: The Digital Transformation Workbook” takes up where “Standing On Shoulders: The Leader’s Guide to Digital Transformation” ends. The “Leader’s Guide” is about understanding the essential components and, most importantly, the relationships and synergies that can be realized when applied together. We initially envisioned it as a way to help senior leaders understand how to develop their strategies, plan for resources, and lead their organizations through the transformation in a sustainable way that would realize its true potential. The workbook goes a layer deeper into the practical application of these concepts within the context of a specific organization. The use of worksheets that are aligned with looking at tactical approaches to applying the strategies outlined in the first book enable the reader to apply the concepts specific to their organization, culture, and appetite for transformation and technology. The result is that the 14 worksheets represent the foundation for their own framework, applying the concepts specific to their situation. This drives the “how” for them, versus an external or generalized approach that may be directionally correct but not specific to their evolving needs. It is the approach of “learning to fish” rather than “being provided with fish”, if I can use that old analogy.

DeArdo:  I also provide some examples/stories on how my experiences at Bell Labs provided some foundational practices and systems thinking that laid the foundation for DevOps practices relating to flow, SRE, Chaos Monkey and lean thinking. In “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation”, Jon Gertner talks about Mervin Kelly who envisioned an “institute of creative technology” where a cross-skilled team across multiple disciplines could openly collaborate and experiment recognizing that any breakthrough would come from a team rather than a specific individual. This aligns with the concept of scenius that Gene Kim commonly refers to:

“Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”—Brian Eno

InfoQ: As organizations are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to remote working, what’s your advice on key learnings for these organizations to succeed?

DeArdo: Working remotely is putting even more emphasis on fundamental principles that we talk about such as making work visible utilizing information/artifacts that track work in our pipelines and tool chains. When a team is sitting together around a board, the communication patterns and ways to share status information can be very informal. However, in remote environments, it’s key to have information from across the value stream (from ideation through release to production) being visible in artifacts in the various tools (PPM, Agile Management, Quality Management, Risk management, Service Management, etc) so that people can pull the information they need from a single up-to-date source of truth. So there’s even more reliance on having reliable information and using collaboration tools.

What these teams are learning is that many inefficient ways of operating -  including being interrupted by questions about “where’s my stuff” - can now be replaced by folks accessing and pulling information directly and using collaboration tools.  

Also, teams are more effective when everyone is remote rather than some people being on-premise while others are remote. When everyone is remote, the processes are designed to optimize that situation rather than having remote folks feel like they are on the perimeter. We have run many remote workshops (using tools like Mural) which are more effective now than when we are doing these on-site with some remote participants. I have also worked with Dominica DeGrandis doing remote Lean Coffees which have been very successful.

Automation of information and practices is even more important. We have teams now measuring flow before and after the stay at home began to see which parts of their processes are better and where new bottlenecks may be occurring which need to be improved.  It also stresses data-driven decision making rather than anecdotal discussions.   

Maher: There are some key learnings and opportunities as a result of our COVID experience, including how we can work, but more importantly what is important to us in a combination of values realization and refocusing. We’re at a real crossroads where some will recognize the opportunity of a true digital transformation, and others may just realize a “burning platform” decision to remain relevant in an increasingly different world. The growing adoption of agile thinking and practices (of all flavors), DevSecOps, and SRE patterns in the technology space with strong emphasis on team, iterations, and product orientation in almost every professional domain points to a congruence that aligns with the generative, psychologically safe, iterative, learning environment that is core to these patterns. I see the current culture of awareness and connectedness aligning with an increasingly prevalent view of the workforce expectations converging with the technology capabilities and current direction. The moons are all aligned, there’s never been a better time to get a good start on what your digital looks like.

InfoQ: Specifically for companies that are going through a digital transformation and were forced to move from a mostly onsite office setting to a new remote-first environment, are there any particular gotchas or warnings to be aware of?

DeArdo: As Mik Kersten has written in “Project to Product”, this situation is accelerating the journey through the “Turning Point” that Carlota Perez writes about in separating companies who can successfully complete this journey vs those who won’t. In this situation, it is even more imperative that the goals of the journey (e.g. to accelerate the delivery and protection of business value) are clear and that metrics are defined to track progress towards this goal.   Activity based measures are not sufficient. 

Even when the need to change is understood at a business leadership level, not measuring the true impact of the change journey and identifying what needs to be improved can result in a failed outcome. Change itself is not sufficient for continued success unless it is accompanied by a way to measure outcomes and identify what impediments need to be addressed to improve.  This formulates the Check/Act steps in the PDCA continuous improvement cycle invented by Walter Shewhart at Bell Labs and implemented by Deming. Many times companies emphasize the planning and doing of change while ignoring the checking and acting components of continuous improvement. A culture of data-driven continuous improvement is essential for effective change to take place.

Guessing at what needs to be improved won’t cut it for teams to make it through the Turning Point. The people closest to the work have the best knowledge of what is impeding their progress and having the data to base improvement decisions is critical. Teams need to be able to safely run experiments and then systems thinking needs to be applied by leadership to drive system wide improvements. A gotcha is when leaders think they need to have the answers. They don’t. They need to harvest the ideas of their teams who are closest to the work and apply systems to optimize the whole (i.e. The First Way).  

Measuring activities vs outcomes is a gotcha. Mik Kersten talks about the Nokia story which, at its root, was a result of measuring activities (i.e. “The Nokia Test” to measure scrum/agile adoption) rather than measuring delivery outcomes. 

Organizations sometimes struggle to identify their product value streams. As discussed in the “Team Topologies” book, every value stream has a customer and there are different types of products which can be internal and external. Most products are internal and serve external product value streams. But many times these are not identified and treated as products. A prime example of this is the software delivery pipeline itself which is typically not treated as a product nor architected for speed. This is likely the most important product a company has in their IT organization yet many times has the least amount of architectural focus or discipline applied to it.

A typical gotcha is teams focusing exclusively on agile, CI/CD and code to cloud and ignoring the bottlenecks at the ends of the value streams. We find that most customers have little visibility on the ends of the value streams and this is where most delays occur. For example, companies spending most of the time (and perhaps money) before work ever gets into the backlog of an agile team or the protracted processes after iterations complete before value is actually delivered into production.

Many teams we coach also have too much work in progress (WIP) and neglected work which is creating issues in delivering business value. We know that context switching is toxic to productivity and team happiness and having a focus on “stop starting” and “start finishing” is key. Lately we have been using the term “WIP-lash” to identify the pain a team feels when their work in progress is interrupted by unplanned work.

Finally, investing in debt (technical and process related) and investment in driving improvements across people, process and technology is critical to sustainable success.  Many teams do not have debt or risk work visible and it’s not prioritized along with features and defects. The “debt spiral” has claimed many victims in the past and will claim even more during this period if companies aren’t investing the right amount and types of debt to improve. Thinking horizontally across product value streams with an emphasis on flow is needed now more than ever.

Maher: The first step is to look at the teams and how they operated before and how they are operating now. Team design and dynamics is essential and doesn’t just happen. Right now it is important to re-evaluate and discuss working arrangements, expectations, team dynamics, and process adjustments. The most important thing is to get the conversation going, to over-communicate to confirm and/or adjust as needed and to make as sure as we can that we hear, understand, and work toward the issues and opportunities in our new normal.

The re-evaluation of our team structures and how we can better support the dynamics and behavior we want to see require some work, such as redefining job descriptions and performance expectations away from individual contributor-based jobs in a functional role, to a safe, iterative, team based culture. Not only does this create a basis for a generative environment, but it also supports and helps to foster sustainability for the things Carmen addressed.

About the Book Authors

Carmen DeArdo is a Principal Flow Advisor at Tasktop Technologies consulting with customers on project to product transformations to accelerate their ability to deliver business value.  DeArdo is a regular speaker at global DevOps events and co-author of: Standing On Shoulders: A Leader's Guide to Digital Transformation. Previously, as DevOps leader at Nationwide Insurance, Carmen was responsible for driving continuous delivery utilizing DevOps, Lean and Agile practices and helped lead the Most Successful DevOps Transformation of 2016 recognized by Carmen’s 2018 talk with Nicole Bryan was named 2018 DevOps Presentation of the Year. Holder of 3 patents in Software Engineering while at Bell Labs.

Jack Maher, co-author of Standing On Shoulders: A Leader's Guide to Digital Transformation is a Digital Transformation Evangelist, educator, and coach for teams, leaders, and organizations on their digital journey. As an appointed ambassador of the DevOps Institute Jack is active in the global DevOps community sharing knowledge and collaborating on the curation of practices and advancing the principles of DevOps. Jack also serves the community as a DevOpsDays Columbus and Columbus DevOps Meetup organizer.


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