Working Agile

Double interview: transition to an Agile way of working

Since March 2018, Quintop has been supporting a pension department of a large Dutch insurer in their transition to an Agile way of working. In this double interview, Manager Wouter Engelsman and Agile Coach René Wardenaar share their experiences in this exciting process.

Why did you choose to transition to an Agile way of working?

Wouter: “1.5 years ago we started to see how we could place ownership lower down in the organization. We wanted to work more agile. Within IT they were already a bit further along; there a way of working agile, SCRUM, was already largely applied. We then decided to also look within the operational departments to see how we could translate the Agile principles into a different, more flexible way of working. Because there is no ready-made framework for operational departments, we are now experimenting to the full.”


So the main goal is lower ownership?

Wouter: “Yes, but not only that. Our environment is changing faster and faster. So we need to become more agile. By placing ownership lower in the organization, in case of issues, the people who know about them can make their own choices about how to solve the issue. This used to be different; if you couldn’t figure something out, you went to your manager, who might then go to an expert center to get an answer. Because we automate a lot of standard issues, we only keep the more complicated ones for our employees. And just then it is important to place ownership lower so that employees can and dare make their own choices. It requires a change in behavior and culture.”

René: “You also see this with other clients; most clients are looking for ways to better unlock people’s knowledge and skills. Management realizes that the people in the operational teams often know best how things can be solved but do not always dare to place the responsibility there. By starting to work short-cyclically, for example, the teams but also the management keep a grip on the progress and the confidence grows to hand over part of the responsibility. A good example; a number of teams were disproportionately busy over a long period of time. After analysis (by the teams themselves) it turned out that this was no longer a temporary peak but a new reality. Because of the new way of working, the solution was sought by those who know best what is going on. A number of short- and long-term initiatives were taken from the relevant teams that led to the solution of the structural problem within a few weeks.”

What is your role in the transformation?

René: “From my role, I focus on two main things. The first is providing a structure within which the Agile mindset can best be organized. You have to think about introducing day starts, working in Sprints, using Scrum boards, etc. With this we teach people to do Agile. In addition, I always confront the teams with the Agile principles; “are the actions you are taking in line with Agile thinking?” By keeping this up, we teach people to be Agile as well. Agile is a mindset and the structure we provide helps employees adapt to the Agile mindset.

Wouter: “Our role is clearly changing; because the structure is changing now, you also see that our talking points are changing. For example, you see that the actual operation is led much more from the coordinators’ meeting . Where we as MT used to set the priorities, we now have to ask the right questions to let the operation set the priorities. It is up to us, within the structure provided by the approach, to provide clear frameworks within which people can take ownership. And within those frameworks, we facilitate the teams and employees. And sometimes we have to make adjustments because the frameworks are either not followed or not clear. The question for us now is often: what do you let happen and when do you adjust?”

René: “I think there is still an important role from management, namely that of sponsor of the transition. Often you see an MT saying that the department has to change but they themselves continue to follow the ‘old’ way of working. And so that doesn’t work. The nice thing about this project is that the MT wants to change along with us and also sets a good example. That is very motivating for the employees to go along with the change.”

Will your role be still needed?

Wouter: “To an increasingly lesser extent. We started 2019 with 2 instead of 3 operational Team Leaders. Because the new way of working is increasing the span-of-control of a manager, we are moving to a model with fewer and fewer MT members.”

In what ways do you see employees embracing Agile working?

Wouter: “You see this in different ways. For example, we as MT receive far fewer requests for approval for one thing or another. Because of the clear frameworks and the corresponding mandate, many decisions now lie within the teams. I used to get questions about whether to send flowers to a customer or to redistribute work within teams or to temporarily need an extra person. I don’t see that kind of thing as much. And when I do get questions, they always come with one or more solutions so that we can have an equal conversation about them. At the same time, we are looking more and more closely at how we can optimize services. The teams do this both separately and together, and the MT also has regular retrospectives in which they examine their own performance. On the basis of these learning moments, the teams enter into discussions with the MT in order to achieve improvements together. In short; the discussion topics shift from substantive to more conceptual.”

And if more formation is needed, for example, do people go to HR themselves?

Wouter: “Previously, people would often immediately shout, ‘We need more people!’ Nowadays it takes a while before such a request comes to us; we as MT are still responsible for the budget. You see that the teams now think about it longer and investigate more possible solutions. Only when (temporary) extra staffing is the only solution, they do come with a well-founded request. As MT we facilitate the request by discussing possible candidates with HR. The discussions with those candidates happens within the teams themselves.”

René: “A nice side effect of what Wouter just told us: until recently, the teams received a management report every week containing the work stock and the mutations in it. This was seen as a means of control from the MT and not very positively received from the point of view of self-management. Because they can now, for example, determine themselves whether extra manpower is needed, they see the usefulness and necessity of good management information. Only then can you make well-founded decisions. Where people first saw the weekly dashboards as interference from the MT, there is now a concrete demand for better management information!”

Wouter: “We are traditionally a production environment. In that, you see that sometimes some people produce more than others. This was reflected in personal KPIs and appraisals, and so a kind of ‘check-off culture’ arose naturally. What you want is for employees to talk to each other about how they can collectively bring or keep production up to par. Employees now see that they need good management info to determine how to keep production at necessary levels. And if that means not being able to help with testing for a while this week, that is a team decision. Making their own choices based on the right information and the right priorities and within the frameworks, that’s what you see happening, and that makes teams stronger and more effective.”

What do the teams still find difficult?

Wouter: “Well, not just the teams… The MT also still finds some things difficult. The challenges are mainly in the new demarcation of the mandate and the change in roles. For the MT this means that we must learn to sometimes sit on our hands longer while the teams and employees must learn to take the mandate they are given. And not only in whether or not they are allowed to take actions, but much more in calling each other to account, including the MT, for their behavior. Speaking out to each other about expectations, possibilities for improvement, irritations, etc. that hinder you in your work is a part we can all still grow in.”

René: “Creating an open and transparent culture, addressing each other on behavior, both positive and negative, is very important within the new way of working. Agile working is based on working in teams. To create high performing teams, we work with Lencioni’s pyramid. This is based on a number of conditions that must be present in order to create an optimal team. The first condition is Trust; team members must have unconditional trust in each other and for this it is necessary that all kinds of underlying irritations are removed or at least expressed. Only then will people be willing to learn with and from each other and a (h)real cooperation will emerge.”

Wouter: “In the hierarchical organization we were, you were told what to do and usually how to do it. The team then was an organizational unit of a certain number of individuals. But the world has really changed; today’s teams are expected to contribute substantially to improvements within the business process. After all, they know better than anyone else how the processes work and what the customers experience. That means that we want to encourage all team members individually to express their knowledge and skills in order to achieve the best performance together. And that also means learning to accept that others sometimes know something better than ourselves without compromising our status. The sum is more than the whole of the parts and we all benefit from that.”

René: “We recently had a discussion in one of the teams about a certain challenge and a large number of ideas came up on how to solve the problem in question. As often, there were a number of people who dominated the discussion here. The team realized that none of the suggested ideas would solve the problem and the conversation fell silent. One of the participants, a somewhat introverted young man, had not yet contributed and I asked him point blank what he would do to solve the problem. He gave two solutions without hesitation; one for the short term and one for the long term. There was a moment of silence, after which the team indicated with surprise that these were the solutions. That was the time to make the team understand that not the biggest talkers always have the best ideas, but that everyone on the team has value. Give each other that value by being genuinely curious about what each team member has to say.”

Wouter: “Before we started the transition, we saw that the teams were very self-contained. This was partly fueled by the Team KPIs; if we do well as a team, then we are safe! Agile working in teams could reinforce this feeling. With Quintop we have chosen to work with all teams at the same time. This naturally led to the desire to get together to see how other teams gave substance to the Agile philosophy. This almost automatically created more understanding for each other’s challenges and that helped enormously to look at the work from a team-transcending perspective. You can now see that the ‘own-team-first’ credo is giving way to a department-wide approach to challenges. Teams are now willing to help out in other teams, even if it means their own work is slightly behind.”

How do you organize Agile working in a Non-IT environment?

Wouter: “In an IT environment, you can choose from a number of frameworks such as Scrum, for example, that help you become Agile. In an operational administrative environment like ours, you can’t apply Scrum 1 on 1. You really have to be guided by the Agile principles and then see what changes you can apply to increase agility. We also do apply elements from Scrum, but only when they add value to the overall Agile way of working. In addition, we didn’t focus so much on the word “Agile”. Some people got chills just hearing the word alone. René took the teams through the Agile mindset and then started the conversation about whether, and if so, how it could work for us. With this approach, the teams themselves largely shaped the change. By working simultaneously with all teams, we were able to develop a fairly uniform way of working because teams naturally began to learn from each other. For example, teams are soaking with daily start boards, working in 2-week Sprints and applying retrospectives. We recently defined roles very similar to Product Owner and Scrummaster but adapted to the environment in which the teams do their work. Thus, the teams each work with a Backlog and have insight and control over (the progress of) their work. Together, the ‘Product Owners’ also form a team in which the teams’ work is aligned. You could compare this to a Scrum-or Scrums. Sprints also help tremendously in planning the work. By agreeing as a department that the Sprint goals are sacred (typical Scrum!) people learn to stick to schedules and it becomes more natural to keep appointments.”

René: “We borrow from the various Frameworks different events and systems that we always test; if it works, we implement it and if it doesn’t work, we throw it overboard. But we always test the practices against the Agile Principles. Reflecting 2-weekly on what we have done and looking ahead to what we need to do, both by team and department-wide, allows us to move quickly and creates a grip on the work. As mentioned, we have declared the Sprint goals “sacred,” which means, among other things, that team members spend much less time on things that come in between. Time is included in the Sprint for a limited amount of unforeseen but necessary work, but larger issues go on the backlog and are picked up in the next Sprint if it has sufficient priority. Because all teams work this way, they automatically learn to look ahead and anticipate.”

What lessons would you like to pass along to other Non-IT organizations?

Wouter: “Just get started! Initially, there was also going to be an extensive program here with communications and everything around it. That took us too long. As MT we embraced the thinking; agile working has obvious advantages. If teams get more control over the operation, our job as managers will change. At the same time, that means we need to start making better use of the talents within the department. You can start doing that tomorrow. By experimenting you will arrive at effective methods.

René: “Totally agree, just start! Keep the basic principles in the back of your mind and take the employees along with you. Then, step by step, you will arrive at increasingly effective working methods in which, on the one hand, the customers come first and, on the other, the employees feel increasingly involved with those customers. And take your time. A transition to a different way of working, but above all thinking, does not happen overnight. People need time to get used to new structures and, above all, new responsibilities. Grass does not grow faster by pulling it…”