“The fact that we delivered for the biggest industry event of the year was hugely motivating and moved us from a negative to a positive spiral. The business was a bit surprised and shocked that we did what we said we would do on something that was quite big and complicated. There’s no way we could have done it without SAFe.”
Paul Littlefair, CIO, Livestock Improvement Corp.

In New Zealand, Fieldays is billed as “the biggest agricultural trade show in the Southern Hemisphere.” Every June, more than 115,000 farming industry visitors come to purchase equipment and learn about the latest in farming advances.

For Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), it’s a can’t-miss opportunity to connect with current and prospective customers—farmers. One of the oldest farming co-operatives in the country, LIC provides a range of services and solutions to help farmers be more prosperous and productive: genetics and information to create superior livestock; information to improve farmer decision-making; and hardware and systems to improve productivity. To achieve those goals, more than 700 employees are based in offices around New Zealand, increasing to around 2,000 for the peak dairy mating season

As Big Data and other technologies begin to heavily influence farming practices, LIC is riding a wave of growth. As LIC prepared for Fieldays 2016, the co-op planned a new release of MINDA Live, the company’s proprietary herd management system. Yet the organization’s IT leadership lacked confidence about delivering as planned—and with good reason. Historically, IT had rarely delivered on time or budget.

“Every time we failed to deliver we did a post-mortem, but didn’t learn from our mistakes, and it would happen again a few months later,” says Paul Littlefair, CIO.

Deploying Essential SAFe®

LIC was an early adopter of Lean-Agile team practices. However, they still performed most IT work with a waterfall governance process.

“We still had incredibly large, multi-year projects, and detailed analysis to write business cases,” Littlefair says. “In typical waterfall fashion, we didn’t test until the end or consider quality from the beginning. It took a lot of rework to get it right, leading to overruns.”

With the Fieldays deadline looming, Littlefair decided to call in Gillian Clark for an assessment of their readiness. To Clark, it was unclear whether teams would deliver as needed for the big event.

To expedite progress, Clark recommended that LIC implement the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®). Given the short timeframe and the team’s unfamiliarity with the Framework, they chose to deploy Essential SAFe, a subset of SAFe that includes 10 major elements necessary for a successful implementation.

“The approach was, get everyone into a room, align teams into a single Agile Release Train (ART) with a focus on integration, and focus on delivery of the program with a single program backlog, with one person coordinating the project managers and pooled budgets. Up to that point they had three project managers fighting for budget and resources, so we merged them,” Clark says.

Given the approaching deadline—just six months out—Littlefair and Clark encountered some resistance to trying something new. They asked everyone to participate in the PI planning, including Operations, which had not participated in planning previously. The CEO likewise attended, which set the tone for the importance of the launch.

“Putting everyone in a room together to talk about stuff—instead of building it—was seen as something we should not do,” Littlefair says. “But we made it mandatory for everyone to attend.”

In spite of initial misgivings, some of those who had been unsure began to recognize the value of face-to-face collaboration during the first day of Program Increment (PI) planning. Specifically, they saw how their roles and their work tied to others.

“It slowly dawned on them that they were on the same critical path as everyone else in the room,” Clark says. “They also began to realize the project outcomes were at risk and that SAFe practices were providing more understanding of what needed to happen to be successful.”

For the first time, teams were working on the same cadence, an essential step in synchronizing everyone across the organization. Soon, they fell into a flow and started to self manage. Communication and transparency improved; instead of making assumptions, individuals started identifying dependencies with others, and making sure those dependencies were discussed and accepted.

Delivering for Fieldays and Beyond

With only six months to plan and prepare, LIC ultimately exceeded internal expectations for the Fieldays event. “The fact that we delivered for the biggest industry event of the year was hugely motivating and moved us from a negative to a positive spiral,” Littlefair says. “The business was a bit surprised and shocked that we did what we said we would do on something that was quite big and complicated. There’s no way we could have done it without SAFe.”

Beyond that release, LIC notes improvements across multiple areas:

  • Time-to-market – A 75% reduction in the time to get features to market (from 12 to 24 months down to three to six months). Features are now released twice a week for COBOL and legacy solutions.
  • Customer value – With more frequent releases, customers now see value much faster. “Customers have absolutely noticed,” Littlefair says. “Whenever something goes out, we post it on social media and we’re seeing a lot more engagement and real-time feedback there.”
  • Quality – A 25% reduction in defects in production
  • Predictability – 98% accuracy on delivery predictability
  • Morale – A 60% improvement in employee engagement survey results

Culture Shift

LIC’s SAFe journey has led to numerous changes across the organization. For one, meetings look quite different than they did before SAFe was adopted. Initially, some leaders preferred not to include all teams in planning meetings. Now, everyone joins, and Littlefair notes, teams hold each other more accountable and ask more insightful questions.

Before, analysts would write involved business cases and ‘push’ them on teams. These days, product owners make sure work is properly sized and teams ‘pull’ the work.

On the Path of Value-Stream Funding

Currently, LIC runs three ARTs and has extended SAFe across the entire technical landscape. Having moved beyond Essential SAFe, the co-op is now on a course to fund projects at the value stream level. Business leaders now clearly see the value of their investments, and discussions center on priorities in terms of features and benefits.

“SAFe has succeeded in a culture and mindset change,” Littlefair says. “We have a set of processes, rules, and practices that work extremely well, and that have led a cultural shift.”

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