Cerno – SAFe Implementation for IT: A Case Study

“We collaborate more than ever with our customers by involving them in planning as much as we can. And we deliver frequent demos—even beyond customers’ expectations. Our customers have found communication to be more effective since the SAFe implementation.”

Sam Wu, Agile Head Coach and Training Director, Cerno

Challenge:

Deliver custom solutions faster and with higher quality for clients.

Industry:

Information Technology, Software

Results:

  • Delivery cycle time dropped by 58%
  • The rate of release failure went down from 0.6 times on average per release to 0
  • The interface automation level increased from zero to 70 percent
  • Reported defects decreased from 13 times per release to five

Best Practices:

  • Power through setbacks – Find solutions and don’t let them stop your momentum.
  • Assess regularly – Inspect & Adapt and DevOps health checks keep teams aware of progress and on track toward goals.
  • Choose a compatible partner – A partner with a business view, not just R&D, moved Cerno ahead with training and coaching.

Introduction

As a custom software factory, Cerno is poised for rapid growth as part of China’s expansive technology market. The company delivers technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing, open source software, and IoT solutions for a diverse range of clients, from logistics to government.

Cerno - SAFe Implementation for IT

To compete effectively, Cerno set out to elevate the speed of delivery, reduce defects, and improve the quality of its solutions in the long term, with the ultimate objective of being more client-focused.

“We needed a next-generation software development method to meet customer needs and reach our goals,” explained Sam Wu, Agile Head Coach and Training Director, Cerno.

Cerno’s founders brought experience in developing software for the financial industry. They found the ‘weak matrix’ structure worked in HR outsourcing, but not so well in product delivery. (A weak matrix is an organizational structure in which the balance of power tilts decisively in the direction of line or functional management.)

And while the traditionally waterfall company had experimented with Lean-Agile development in the past, they lacked the training or business support to build momentum.

SAFe®: The Path from Strategy to Delivery

While attending Leading SAFe® training, a Cerno executive saw a promising path to Agile, leading Cerno to adopt the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe). “It was clear that we needed SAFe to make Cerno a total Agile enterprise, to expand Agile not only to product lines but also to the business and functional departments such as HR and finance,” explained Liu Yilei, VP, Cerno. “We saw SAFe as the model that would take us from strategy to delivery.

“SAFe provided a comprehensive toolkit and an easy way to move forward,” added Wu, who was hired at that time to lead the effort as the internal change agent. At the same time, the company brought in SAFe Gold partner Aura International for coaching and training.

Per the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, James Li, Principal Consultant from Aura, led the SAFe Executive Workshop. Jack Xu, Senior Consultant from Aura, delivered SAFe® for Teams training and helped prepare for the first Program Increment (PI) planning event. They organized teams, reconfigured the office to better support those teams, and reorganized the product plan with user-story mapping.

For the first Agile Release Train launch, they began with four Agile teams—the entire R&D team plus Infrastructure and Operations—on an existing initiative to digitalize a logistics solution for a client.

From that first PI, team leaders embraced the Lean-Agile mindset. They identified priorities based on business value and began allowing people to self-organize. Instead of waiting to be assigned work, developers identified the work based on business objectives, committed to the work in PI Planning, and moved forward with it.

More Stories in Less Time—Despite Setbacks

Though Cerno set out to follow SAFe by the book, they ran into roadblocks that forced mid-course adjustments. In middle of the first PI, the Systems Architect left, leading Cerno to assemble a team to assume his responsibilities.

Additionally, the customer cut some funding because of market forces. And when managers wanted to move some teams to another client project, it nearly stopped the train. Given technical and capacity challenges, Cerno chose to postpone 15 percent of the high-risk PI objectives and scale back the size of the train.

Developers also found it challenging to transition from private to public code, a decision made to reduce bottlenecks in bug fixes and hidden technical debt. As the project team transitioned away from three-week waterfall development, the coaching team helped set code standards. In time, they found that developers took more pride in their code because of its public nature.

Even with the early challenges, the Inspect and Adapt session after the first PI showed the teams had met PI objectives and reduced defects. The ART could produce 45 stories per two-week iteration, on average, by the end of the first PI, compared to 30 stories per three-week iteration in waterfall.

Cerno - SAFe Implementation for IT

Routine DevOps Health Checks

When Cerno first introduced DevOps practices, the company lacked a SAFe DevOps Practitioner. Still, they made progress on a delivery pipeline and staging environment, supported a grayscale release of a product, and shortened the time to release future versions.

Additionally, they formed a new system integration testing (SIT) plan that shrunk testing time by 25 percent initially, and then by half, freeing the development team to put more effort into new features.

To expedite progress, they began conducting DevOps health checks. Early on, those checks uncovered opportunities to improve delivery. To stay on track, they now perform this exercise every PI. With the habit of regular checks, Cerno has made strides with automated testing and continuous integration/continuous deployment.

To support their efforts, they also established Communities of Practice and hold monthly technical workshops for developers.

Delivery Cycle Time Down 58 Percent

Today, Cerno runs two ARTs with 80 people. These high-confidence teams agree on, and begin working on, requirements faster. They communicate and collaborate more tightly than before they introduced SAFe and are continuously improving.

When the ART completed work with one client, they simply switched the train to support another logistics client with a similar solution—effectively a plug-and-play release train. The company then added a second ART to deliver value to another client. Each train continues to serve a single client.

To date, Cerno has made remarkable progress:

  • Delivery cycle time dropped from 3½ weeks to two weeks, or 58 percent
  • The average offline time for a new production environment release decreased from 3½ hours to half an hour
  • The rate of release failure went down from 0.6 times on average per release to 0
  • The interface automation level increased from zero to 70 percent
  • Reported defects decreased from 13 times per release to five

Most importantly, Cerno realized its goal of becoming a more customer-centric organization.

“We collaborate more than ever with our customers by involving them in planning as much as we can. And we deliver frequent demos—even beyond customers’ expectations,” Wu said. “Our customers have found communication to be more effective since the SAFe implementation.

“This is the first SAFe transformation case I have coached in a local company in China,” Li said. “Although there’s still more to improve, it is really a great and wonderful start! It is a significant milestone for SAFe in China.”

Looking ahead, Cerno is building toward agility beyond solution delivery, into administrative management and marketing—to become a total Agile enterprise.

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Dutch Tax and Customs Administration – Implementing SAFe for Government

Dutch Tax and Customs Administration - Implementing SAFe for Government

“We are delivering faster and more predictably than in the past, which has changed many minds and driven a shift in long-ingrained ways of working.”

Mark Braam, IT Manager/RTE, Interaction Services at DTCA

Challenge:

DTCA sought to improve its speed and predictability in bringing new technology to the organization and citizens.

Industry:

Government

Results:

  • Major releases 3X more often
  • 80% reduction in technical debt
  • Half of managers moved into other roles
  • Greater engagement and collaboration across all levels

Best Practices:

  • Go ‘by the book’ – Follow SAFe training and ceremonies closely for the best results.
  • Anticipate organizational change – SAFe facilitated a cultural and organizational shift at DTCA.
  • Give teams freedom – Trust teams and give them space to do their jobs.
  • Shift to product thinking – Product vs. project thinking provides continuity and life cycle management and a more long-term outlook, plus brings more attention to improvement, maintainability, lifecycle management, and cost of ownership.

Introduction

With 26,000 employees, the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration (DTCA) is one of the largest government agencies in the Netherlands, and is responsible for collecting taxes and customs, and extending tax credits and benefits to Dutch residents.

Implementing SAFe for Government

DTCA relies on technology to sharpen productivity and simplify online tax and customs procedures. Yet in this process-oriented and risk-averse culture, technology evolves slowly. Initiatives have typically begun with piles of paperwork and then have taken months or years to reach completion, often to suffer from frustrating quality issues.

To address its ongoing challenges, DTCA began moving toward a Lean approach and also started applying Scrum practices. These first steps toward an Agile way of working did help but were not enough to achieve goals such as improving delivery times and elevating quality.

SAFe: A Path to Delivering Value

In the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), DTCA found a method for achieving agility at scale—and long-sought results.

“To deliver more value, we knew that projects and teams needed to be aligned more effectively, and we believed the shift to SAFe would help us get there,” explained Mark Braam, IT Manager/RTE, Interaction Services at DTCA.

The Tax Allowances division, which handles tax credits and benefits for health care, rent, and childcare, began first. Per the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, they provided role-based training to virtually all Agile Release Train (ART) members, relying on an independent Certified SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) for training and coaching.

Early on, managers and team members sceptically viewed the effort and the time they would need to dedicate to training and planning events. Ultimately, they had to trust that pulling 140 people into an event for two days every 12 weeks would pay off in the end—and it did. The first ART began delivering business value during the first PI.

“Before SAFe, we released our software twice a year, with all the fixed requirements and the changes on these requirements during the development phase,” recalled Ramzi Barkoudah, Release Train Engineer (RTE) of the Tax Allowances ART. “But now we are releasing every four weeks. Seeing those benefits helped gain the support of the business and the leadership of the company.”

As one example, every year, tax allowances, which have been granted in advance, are calculated and extended based upon the determined annual income of each citizen. This massive process involves allowances for millions of citizens. In the past, DTCA could implement changes in this process only once or twice a year. With a major investment in the delivery pipeline and improving the delivery process by implementing SAFe, the organization now makes changes to the process in small batches, releasing changes every four weeks.

Progress in the Tax Allowances ART inspired the Interaction Services division to make the leap as well. Going ‘by the book,’ they asked everyone joining the first ART to go through role-based training, approximately 140 people.

When it was time for the first Program Increment (PI) Planning event, team members arrived excited and optimistic. They quickly saw the impact the Framework brought as the number of risks on the Program Board grew to 100. Identifying those risks allowed teams to resolve them together, one by one, and to categorize each before moving on to set PI objectives.

IT/Business Collaboration = More On-Target Products

In a culture of such ingrained practices, DTCA has had to educate team members and Product Owners continuously on the value of spending time in PI Planning, and to prove that SAFe delivers better results than traditional project management.

Siebren Biesma, Process Director for Supervision in Interaction Services, has spent nearly 35 years at DTCA. With SAFe, he has seen new ways of working replace long-held practices.

Before, Biesma’s team would spend months writing plans for projects with occasional interaction with him. Then, IT teams would go away to work on the project—often for at least a year.

Implementing SAFe for Government

Today, Biesma remains engaged from the start. “With SAFe, as a Business Owner, I’m always participating,” he explained. “The RTE asks a number of questions and I need to explain loudly and clearly what I want. It forces me to be prepared and prioritize what’s most important.”

Biesma stresses that relentless involvement, from PI to PI, not only creates a more on-target product, but builds in flexibility to make adjustments along the way. Product Ownership continuously informs the development process—ensuring that the final product meets their needs and that funds are allocated in the right areas. While budgeting itself hasn’t changed, transparency regarding the budget has.

“In PI planning events, I get a better understanding how much we’re spending and if it’s on the right things,” Biesma added.

Biesma and fellow decades-long colleagues have noticed a significant cultural shift; they clearly know who is doing what, and collaborate and discuss more than before. Such collaboration has led to tighter alignment between the business and IT, which Willy Rovers, Managing Director of IT, says is one of the biggest benefits of SAFe.

“To maintain optimal alignment with societal and market changes, the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration’s processes must be continuously and short-cyclically adjusted,” Rovers said. “Business and IT use SAFe to be able to realize and implement the required IT facilities quickly and predictably.”

Braam gives credit to the teams for self-organizing, increasing their engagement. Train leaders asked 100 people to assign themselves to one of the teams, with each team comprising seven to nine people. They provided guidelines around the composition of each team, such as the ratio of junior to senior people.

“We stepped aside and let people self-organize instead of management telling them where to go,” Braam said. “After a week, we only had to ask about 10 people to move to other teams. It was quite a victory for us.”

Technical Debt Down 80 Percent

DTCA continues to run two large ARTs (125+), with four Value Streams (one in Tax Allowances and three in Interaction Services). In fact, DTCA follows a hybrid way of working where every department can choose either SAFe or a more ‘traditional’ project management-oriented way of working, depending on what fits best. The organization has driven notable results across the two ARTs and within a few smaller ARTs:

  • More frequent releases – Major releases come out 3X more often, from 4 to 12 in a year.
  • Improved software quality/technical debt – DTCA improved quality by reducing the number of ‘problems’ by 80 percent, and security issues by 87 percent (Interaction Services).
  • Less management overhead – The number of people with the word ‘manager’ in their titles dropped in half. These individuals moved into other roles.
  • Increased engagement – People are more engaged, connected with each other, and willing to help others.

“We are delivering faster and more predictably than in the past, which has changed many minds and driven a culture shift in long-ingrained ways of working,” Braam said. “And we expect even more progress as we move ahead on current objectives such as continuous deployment and release on demand.”

Training At-a-Glance

The organization trained more than 250 people across multiple SAFe courses:

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