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How the Dutch Railways Applies Agile and Lean

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The mindset that goes with agile and lean philosophies is quite similar; lean amplifies agile and vice versa. Agile practices are suitable for the development of complex products, and lean practices are suitable to look for opportunities to reduce waste in your processes. Lean helps to see results from the customer’s point of view, from start to delivery, whereas agile supports delivering optimal value for customers.

Fina Piazza, Scrum master and Agile transformation coach, and Christien van Gastel, manager continuous improvement and Lean IT, spoke about agile and lean at Dutch railways (NS) at the annual conference of the Agile Consortium Netherlands. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Piazza and van Gastel about combining agile and lean to support continuous improvement.

InfoQ: What made you decide to talk about combining agile and lean?

Fina Piazza: I heard about the conference and asked Christien to do a joined effort with lean and agile, since we both work in those areas and see our work for several teams as complementary to each other. We were triggered by the conference name as well, due to the word "paradox".

Christien van Gastel: Fina Piazza told me about her idea and I immediately thought it was a great opportunity to talk about how well lean amplifies agile and vice versa. We have seen it working.

InfoQ: In what situations are agile practices most suitable? And when are lean practices a good choice?

Van Gastel: Lean and agile find their origin in different branches: industry and software development. The mindset that goes with both philosophies is actually quite similar. Lean seems to be more applicable to get started becoming more agile. An example would be standardization: without a standard it is not really possible to start on continuous improvement (Kaizen). In continuous improvement we wish to eliminate waste (Muda) to improve the quality of the product and deliver products faster.

We often make a Value Stream Map. That shows how the process really goes, instead of how it is designed. Every step (activity) is written on a Post-It. Every activity means who is doing it (a role), the time it takes to do the activity (worktime), the time it takes to go to the next step (waiting time), how often this activity takes place, and what information is being added.

Piazza: Agile practices in general are suitable for the development of complex products. Some key characteristics are time to market, incremental, inspect & adapt, cross functional teams, people driven, self-organizing teams and delivering optimal value for the customers. Lean practices are very suitable to look for opportunities to reduce waste in your processes in order to become more efficient.

InfoQ: How do agile and lean complement each other?

Piazza: Within NS, Christien was working with the team I coach on reducing waste in the production live stream; this gave me the opportunity to have another look at the DoD for example. We align on a regular basis to see what next steps we can make and how we can complement each other.

Practically what we did for our teams is that Christien and her team helped our teams to create a VSM (Value Stream Map) in which we discovered elements in our process to get to production quicker. We had to eliminate hand over moments and improve our quality even more in order to achieve that. A first step in this is that we have added some details in our PBIs (Product Backlog Items) to achieve this level of quality. This way we hope it will get in our DNA so that these details, expressed in a "template", won’t be necessary anymore.

Van Gastel: Lean helps us to see our results from the customer’s point of view: from start to delivery. Are we capable of delivery when we need other teams in the process? We use a lean/agile approach in meetings that will help us with continuous improvement. Also we introduced the power of measuring in the Info+ department. They have a dashboard, on which by example, the sprint commitment vs realization is displayed per sprint, per team, % ready stories in sprint, % coverage of regression test, etc. Now the team is really in control of the deliverables.

InfoQ: What are your experiences with improvement teams?

Van Gastel: We do not work in temporary improvement teams, but we work with our colleagues together on specific problems or questions on waste reduction or improvement projects. In the team of Fina we first worked to improve the teams in working together; now we are working on improving with the business. In the VSM we identified a lot of improvements, and now are working on the top three items. Automatic testing is an example. Our team is always concerned with improvement within the organization.

Piazza: All our teams are continuously improving, together with the other teams (like the Lean team, CI/CD team). We don’t name them improvement teams though. We have a shared ownership, we make sure it’s fun to go to work, celebrate successes and learn from our mistakes. Recently we started with guilds within the organization to share more best practices and learn from each other. In these bi-weekly meetings we discuss cases, topics to share with our colleagues, and potential improvements.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for organizations that want to establish continuous improvement?

Piazza: Just start! Do it! If you decide to use Scrum, make sure you implement Scrum the way it was meant to be, no exceptions: learn, inspect & adapt……always.

Van Gastel: Make sure you use the daily starts and the reviews in lean. Make sure everybody feels comfortable speaking up. The first care is a safe environment, people really can speak out, and the others are really listening. The leader’s behavior is essential, managing by example, so he or she has to be the first to speak out, and offers help when it is needed.

Work bottom–up as well as top-down. Daily starts and reviews are important for operational management. Colleagues need to see what is in it for them, show how people are able to make things better in their working environment.

Management needs to change so they can make people shine and help them to do their work as well as possible. Be an example for other people and ask what, instead of who!

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