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Organizing Improvements with Lean Leadership at ING Bank

| by Ben Linders Follow 9 Followers on Mar 09, 2017. Estimated reading time: 8 minutes |

It’s the manager’s job to organize improvements and to make sure that real learnings take place. For real learnings you must accept the unknown and move outside of your knowledge boundary. According to Leendert Kalfsbeek and David Bogaerts from ING Bank, agile, lean and continuous delivery help to boost your learning capabilities.

Leendert Kalfsbeek, IT manager, and David Bogaerts, lean and agile coach, will speak about the lean leadership journey at ING Bank at the Lean IT Summit 2017. InfoQ will cover this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

The Lean IT Summit 2017 will be held on March 14-15 in Paris, France:

Lean IT provides validated management practices to tackle the many challenges digital brings to the workplace. The summit will explore three themes on how Lean in IT/ Digital can:

  • Delight your customers and users
  • Increase velocity and agility to have a competitive advantage
  • Move your organization beyond Taylorism and develop intense collaboration with your customers, employees and suppliers

InfoQ interviewed Leendert Kalfsbeek and David Bogaerts about the history of applying agile and lean IT at ING Bank and things they learned on their lean journey.

InfoQ: ING Bank has a long history of applying lean. Can you give an overview?

Leendert Kalfsbeek & David Bogaerts: ING has indeed a long history with lean in several areas of our organization. Zooming in on IT, it started approximately seven years ago with three agile/Scrum pilots at the software development department of our Internet & Mobile department in 2010. In our area (currently named OmniChannel IT), agile and lean always have been intertwined, like twins being separate at birth growing up in different families: maybe the naming of things is sometimes different, but the concepts and philosophy are the same. Problems with the concepts only arise when you are trying to copy implementations from different industries and companies without making them your own.

Anyway, back to our history. After the success of the first pilots, we saw that agile/Scrum was really catching on. Engineers seemed to feel liberated and often teams were self-starting and applying agile. Although presenting some challenges (like learning stuff wrongly), in general this was a very positive thing which we could easy build on. In 2011, backed up by the empirical evidence that agile was helping us further, we decided in ING NL that we only would use agile lean frameworks for software development.

Meanwhile, we started to think about the next steps: how can we further increase autonomy of our teams by reducing handoffs? We started with experiments, again in our Internet and Mobile domain, in which we brought software development and operations together in one team, what we called DevOps teams at that time (but what’s in a name). And history repeated: despite some learnings, it was very successful. This brought us to the next logical step: bringing Dev and Ops together in one team for whole IT of ING NL. You are talking about approximately 150 DevOps teams in 2013. Of course, you run into certain coordination challenges if you do this kind of thing at such a scale. But we considered this to be a good thing. It put the spotlight on obstacles in our organization we had to solve anyway. Now we could start removing them.

By now, we truly understood the power of removing handoffs. This brought us to our next bold step: bringing in-depth customer knowledge to our teams; not just a product owner of an IT product, but true customer journey experts. This brought us to our current organization, in which customer journey experts and IT engineers are together in one small team (7 +/- 2), being as autonomous as possible. Others gave these names like BizDevOps or Enterprise Agility. We just call it "The Model That Works". At least, it works for us.

Two important remarks on this history:

First of all, our continuous delivery journey goes hand in hand with our agile & lean journey. You need both to be successful.

Second, agile, lean and continuous delivery was never the goal. Back in 2010, our drive was to build the best IT company of the Netherlands and our focus was on creating an excellent culture for engineering. Agile, lean and continuous delivery are just necessary means and help you to boost your learning capabilities.

InfoQ: Which problems did you stumble upon during your lean journey?

Kalfsbeek & Bogaerts: None. We had a lot of learnings, though. To point out just two:

1: Don’t look at the mountain of obstacles; instead imagine the excellent view from the top

If you take on a journey like this, a mountain of obstacles is piling up. And after solving one, you uncover many more. The mountain seems to grow bigger instead of smaller with every step you take. We learned not to get frustrated by this, but instead, to welcome our obstacles. They probably were there all the time and now we are able to see them and start solving them. So we do not look at the mountain so much anymore. Instead we enjoy our current view, we imagine how much better the view from the top of the mountain will be and start removing the next obstacle standing in our way together with everybody involved. And guess what, we also sleep much better since we think like this.

2: Go deep before going wide

Our journey consist of a series of smaller and bigger experiments. We learned over the years that if we try out new things and we see that it works, to make sure that we understand what it is that’s working, how it works and why it is working before we bring it further. We want to create an in-depth understanding before we bring it to other areas. In the beginning, it felt that we were slowing down by thinking like this. However, it turned out that if you first create a good understanding, you are able to roll out things much faster. So go deep before going wide and move slow to go fast!

InfoQ: How did you organize continuous improvement at ING Bank?

Kalfsbeek & Bogaerts: We cannot speak on behalf of the whole ING Bank, but within OmniChannel IT we realized at a certain point that Scrum only brought us to a certain level. We were making a lot of progress, but we were not improving any further. Assessing our situation, we realized that our teams were doing great, however, still, some stuff was not happening. And since our teams were not the problems, it must be us: the management team.

We realized that to continuously improve an organization by the use of biweekly, disconnected, team retrospectives is just not enough. We need an organizational focus on our improvements; focusing on the things we need to improve to meet our most challenging business goals. We try to do this by providing context to everybody in our organization; not just the overall direction, but the specific information to every individual so (s)he can constantly make the best decisions possible. We do this by creating a continuous dialogue on our challenges and following the scientific method of Plan Do Check Act to meet them. We use the pattern of Mike Rother’s coachingkata dialogue to help us with this.

We realized that PDCA sounds simple but is extremely difficult to put it into practice daily. We need help to do this because our old habits die slow. That’s why we created a working pattern: a rhythm and routine for us and everyone to assure that we discuss our challenges and continue to work on them and become better improvers day by day.

This sounds simple and it is, but it’s hard work and we encounter many obstacles. But in the end it is just work, our JOB & responsibility, and we are determined to continue until we reach the level in which we, as a whole, improve "Every Process, Every Product, Every Person, Every Day"

InfoQ: How do you involve everyone, employees and managers, in continuous improvement?

Kalfsbeek & Bogaerts: Mostly by doing it and not talking about it too much. By doing it and getting results, real learning takes place which helps us to improve on the way we improve!

If we stumble upon a challenge which needs a structural approach in solving it, we try to locate the right improver (who is in the "natural" position to take on the challenge). We give a short introduction of our continuous improvement framework and then we start doing it together, an improver with a mentor.

InfoQ: What did you learn on your journey of continuous improvement?

Kalfsbeek & Bogaerts: That we knew nothing (the initial "S" word used here is not suitable for publication), and still don’t know a lot, but at least we are learning. We are not worried anymore if we don’t know something and we feel comfortable to uncover new grounds. We experienced that the real learning takes place in the unknown. Meanwhile we are getting results and creating a better organization to work in.

And of course we learned much more. We will share more of our learning at the lean IT Summit, the 14th of March in Paris.

InfoQ: Which advice can you give to managers who want to do continuous improvement applying lean?

Kalfsbeek & Bogaerts: It’s four words: Build Your Own Capabilities. We are not saying that you shouldn’t ask help from outside, but you must make it your own. Managers simply cannot outsource the most important management role "Organize improving" and "train employees". If they do, they might as well outsource their whole management role.

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