“SAFe provided the structure we needed to scale Agile enterprise-wide. It addressed the complexities and gave us the framework for building portfolios, roles, and jobs to achieve our goals for productivity, morale, and quality.”

Alex Keyter, Lean Agile Transformation Consultant (SPC4), Standard Bank

Based in South Africa, Standard Bank is the largest African banking group, with total assets of ZAR1.95 trillion (USD143 billion). For more than 152 years, the bank has served the continent and is now present in 20 sub-Saharan countries. Standard Bank operates seven different portfolio offerings across business and personal banking, corporate and investment, and wealth management.

At Standard Bank, the IT team embarks on approximately 600 projects every year to help keep the bank at the leading edge. Yet traditionally, teams have completed only a small percentage of projects within the defined timeframe, budget, and scope.

To improve follow-through, Standard Bank tried a few Lean-Agile pilots. However, their efforts stalled when they attempted to expand beyond a few teams working in isolation.

“We were very much a project-based environment,” explains Alex Keyter, Lean Agile Transformation Consultant (SPC4) at Standard Bank. “We tried waterfall, a combined team approach, and other frameworks, but nothing addressed the challenge of delivering value across organizational silos. Standard Bank has over 2,000 systems in IT, which required tremendous coordination to deliver an initiative successfully.”

Changing Culture and Launching POCs

On the back of a number of benchmarks that the bank set locally and internationally, the company initiated a four-pillar IT strategy:

  • Quality of service through brilliant basics, which are defined as IT housekeeping and maintenance; stability of service; and simplifying and reducing complexity
  • Responsiveness to market
  • Sustainability as the foundation of client excellence
  • Affordability through commercial pragmatism

To support its goals, the bank turned to the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), and gained backing from executives to move ahead with deploying it. “SAFe provided the structure we needed to scale Agile enterprise-wide,” Keyter says. “It addressed the complexities and gave us the framework for building portfolios, programs, and teams to achieve our strategic goals.”

But prior to rolling out SAFe, Standard Bank initiated various culture initiatives to start driving the change in behavior of leaders and teams, and launched proofs of concept.

“To affect culture change is like pulling out a rubber band,” explains Josef Langerman, Head of Engineering and IT Transformation at Standard Bank. “When the band is relaxed, it returns to its previous comfortable state. One has to exert energy again to pull it out. By doing this repeatedly and in different ways, the band gets softer and more stretched out. Similarly, culture needs continued effort and reliance on many techniques to move it to a new comfortable or desired state. There is no silver bullet.”

The bank took a number of steps to stretch out of its comfort zone:

  • They pulled cross-functional teams together and began delivering on a cadence
  • The Internet Banking and ATM teams modeled breaking work down into smaller, more manageable pieces and demonstrated to stakeholders the work completed during the sprint
  • Business and IT stakeholders joined in during these showcases to provide feedback to the teams
  • They switched their work attire from suits and ties to jeans
  • They began running off-site sessions with IT to define culture themes, change guilds, and more
  • They initiated DevOps initiatives prior to the SAFe implementation but were formalized during the roll-out

As part of the transition, Standard Bank set out to create a fully automated self-provisioning environment with scripting, and used an automation challenge to drive interest in skills. Automation pilots yielded significant tangible results:

  • 20 minutes – Time to deploy application server stack end-to-end
  • 30 seconds – Time to release new code to customers
  • 0 percent – Deployment impact to customers

Additionally, the bank set a clear vision for the future of the organization. At the top, leaders aligned around a common understanding of goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) and emulated Silicon Valley tech leaders on the kind of change and coaching culture required.

At lower levels, the development community participated in defining the future state of the bank. Standard Bank also empowered employees to design their own culture as a group—to achieve true ownership.

Implementing SAFe and DevOps

Prior to launching the first Agile Release Train (ART), Standard Bank portfolios embarked on an outside-in model, moving away from the traditional project structures into a SAFe design construct forming cross-functional Teams, Programs, and Portfolios. The bank set a milestone for the first of July 2016 for teams to co-locate, work from a backlog, and establish visual management of work and self-regulated teams.

With the outside-in design taking shape, Human Capital with support from the Group CIO started a program that focused on re-skilling individuals to repurpose them as software engineers, quality engineers, or user experience analysts. Once they passed the aptitude test and went through the program, they were placed in a feature team. As a result, the organization now has more people getting the work done versus managing it.

“We really broke the old business operating model,” explains Adrian Vermooten, Head of Digital for the Africa Regions. “We said, ‘We’re changing our methodology. We’re moving out of this building and you’re giving up your old jobs.’”

In July 2016, two individuals attended SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) training and returned to begin rapidly training hundreds of team members. From July 2016 through February 2017, Standard Bank trained approximately 1,200 people on Leading SAFe in preparation for its first Program Increment (PI) planning meeting in January 2017.

A division CIO set the tone for executive sponsorship by earning certification as a SAFe Agilist prior to the first PI. Then he and other leaders planned heavily for the first event.

The First PI: A Mind-frame Shift

Leading up to the first Program Increment (PI), the bank evaluated the various internal and external teams impacting Agile Release Trains (ARTs) in the Portfolio and extended invitations accordingly. The first PI brought together 300 people from the Card & Emerging Payments group, which depends on more than 32 systems with numerous codependencies. While challenging, the event succeeded in kicking off a major mind-frame shift.

“The way we normally do things, we inherently start with, ‘Why? And we can’t do that,’ as opposed to this process which was, ‘We can do it, and how?’” stated one of the attendees.

Following a successful PI Planning session, the benchmark was set and other Portfolios soon followed with their first PI Planning sessions.

Productivity Up 50 Percent

These days, with more than 2,000 people trained on Leading SAFe, Lean-Agile practices and SAFe are key parts of Standard Bank’s strategic plan. The move to SAFe delivered a number of benefits, both qualitative and quantitative. Standard Bank succeeded in breaking down silos and improving dependency management. They removed complexity and reduced cost—while building more. Business people now prioritize work and budgets to account for IT change.

The bank notes significant gains within some of the more mature Teams or Portfolios:

  • Time-to-market reduced from 700 to 30 days
  • Deployments increased from once or twice a year to monthly
  • Productivity increased 50 percent
  • Cost decreased by 77 percent
  • Predictability is now at 68 percent
  • Organizational health improved by 12 percentage points from 2013 – 2016

As hoped, the benefits have trickled down to the customer. “We put together some teams that much more closely represent the customer value chain,” Vermooten says.

Beyond the numbers, Vermooten sees the changes firsthand every day. Senior staff members get out from behind their desks and interact more with teams, while junior staff feel more free to share ideas.

“We flattened the organization,” he says. “Before, only senior people would speak up in meetings. Now, in every meeting, junior people are leading the conversation. There’s higher energy and intensity in people. It brings out the best in them.”

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