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IT Hosting with Kanban: A Case Study from an Insurance Company

| by Ben Linders Follow 8 Followers on Nov 13, 2015. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

Odile Moreau presented a case study of a big insurance company who started their Agile journey with Kanban for 15 IT Hosting teams at the Lean Kanban Benelux 2015 conference.

InfoQ interviewed Odile Moreau about the situation at the insurance company before they started with agile, what made them decide to choose Kanban, how teams use Kanban to manage their flow and how Kanban is used to coordinate and align work between different teams, and asked her to share some of the learnings from this Kanban journey.

InfoQ: Can you briefly describe the situation before they started with agile? What were the main problems that needed to be solved?

Moreau: The organization went through a major reorganization at the beginning of 2015. The main objectives was to work in a more customer-oriented way, with "dedicated" teams for each customer instead of technology-oriented. The main problem was how to keep the various "customers" satisfied. By satisfied I mean how can we make sure that the demand is understood, correctly prioritized, correctly delivered (keeping in mind all the quality and compliancy requirements) and delivered on time (when needed). So when I started this agile journey there were about 15 teams just starting to get used to the idea that they were working for one particular customer instead of working for many customers on one specific IT skill.

InfoQ: What made you decide to choose Kanban?

Moreau: The company had already many Scrum teams from the software development side of its business, so for IT Hosting they also decided to start with Scrum. The team dedication (one team for one client) was one of the key factors to start with Scrum, and the other one was that it was successfully used by the various development teams. After a couple of weeks I was called in because Scrum was not really helping the teams. They had visibility thanks to a backlog, they had rituals such as the daily stand-ups but they were struggling a lot of with the Scrum way of working.

The foremost reason to choose Kanban was that the iterations of 2 weeks were not working for them. Work in the IT Hosting teams is a mix of change and run. That means when an incident occurs the team cannot say "let’s solve this incident in the next iteration". Once we got rid of the iterations there was a sense of relief by the team members.

The second reason was that the teams are following standard processes (based on ITIL) for the work that they are doing. The Scrum board with To Do, Busy, and Done was too abstract to track down the issues and bottlenecks, everything was stuck in Busy. We kept most of the rituals: stand-ups are done, sprint planning became Start of the week, we made sure that the retrospectives were held and we introduced the Kaizen sessions.

A third reason to choose Kanban was the approach: evolutionary change instead of disruptive change (with Scrum). The teams had already been through a lot and it was important to give them the opportunity to actually decide on what was best for them and to do it themselves instead of being told what to do.

InfoQ: How do the teams use Kanban to manage their workflow?

Moreau: Each team has developed its own Kanban system to make sure that it represents their current way of working. The Kanban systems have been translated into the company’s tool: Jira. Most of the team members are distributed over several locations, also outside the Netherlands. A distributed tool was necessary to make sure that everyone is aligned with each others.

The team members are responsible for the flow of work from the moment that a particular incident, change of task has been assigned to the column "Things to be done this week". Basically the golden rule is that if a task is not visible you should not be working on it.

It still happens that the team members are directly asked to do something by a colleague without first making sure that this task really is important and relevant is for the client. Some of the team members are still struggling with following this new way of working. They are afraid to say "No" to their peers. We are getting there though; especially when it is clearly visible that one particular colleague has way too many cards in progress.

Beside this the teams are empowered to organize themselves the best possible way. During the stand-up focusing on the progress and the issues / bottlenecks helps the team members to deliver results.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples showing how Kanban is used to coordinate and align work between different teams?

Moreau: Currently we are experimenting with a "Start of the week" for the whole IT hosting department (15 teams). We have asked all of the various team leaders, technical project leaders, and product owners from the Scrum teams to come together once a week to align the backlogs. The advantage of Jira is that everyone can have a look at the big picture = what is going on within IT hosting in general. Up to now that was not the case.

Now that we have more visibility of all the backlogs we can align the priorities and make sure that the dependencies between the teams are known. We are slowly reconfiguring the different teams. Some team members are reallocated to other teams in order to make sure that there is enough capacity available to deliver the work and we are still trying to break more silos down.

InfoQ: Can you share some of the learnings from this Kanban journey?

Moreau: It may sound like an "open door" but without the commitment of the management you cannot reach the full potential of a Kanban system. At the beginning of every Kanban journey the will is needed to make this a success.

I think one of the major fault in becoming more Agile is that the team needs to be self-organizing. This is of course very true but not without a clear goal / aim that the whole team and management want to achieve. The team members do not have the necessary skills and vision to know what is more important and how to play around the different expectation. Although I have seen some great proactivity from several team members. They are really using their experience to positively influence the priority of the backlog and helping the end customer with their insights. We still need a strong leader in order to make sure that the priorities and management of expectation are taken care of. This is not only a role for the team, this is a role for the team leader / manager. Now that we have learned that, we are adjusting our start of the Kanban journey when we explained what Kanban is and how it works. We now spend more time setting up the goals that we want to achieve. The management also has to participate during the workshop and of course during the various rituals.

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