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Driving results and transforming engagement in a disenfranchised, under-performing team

The situation

A large-scale logistics company embarked on a digital transformation journey but found itself without a DevOps team to support the delivery train. The creation of a new team from existing developers led to unforeseen challenges, including low morale, confusion about roles, and a lack of direction. David McKenzie, Principal Consultant at Elabor8, identified the need for leadership and cultural transformation.

 

It’s more of a leadership story as opposed to an agile story,” said David McKenzie, Principal Consultant at Elabor8, who helped lead them out of stagnation.”

 

The challenge

When the team was established, a group of developers used to building and creating were suddenly responsible for operational support, which requires an entirely different skill set, not to mention an entirely different mindset. They were flooded with fixes, constantly playing catch-up, and incapable of doing their best work.

Nobody had explained to them why they were there, why they were chosen specifically, and as support roles are often perceived as less valuable than delivery positions, they were convinced they were being punished. 

The origins of their discontent generally fell into two loosely defined, interconnected categories:

  • Ownership and control

When Elabor8 arrived, team members were deeply demoralised. Their work was dictated by others, there were few processes in place, and no evident plans or roadmaps for the future. They were assigned development work, but constant incidents and urgent customer issues meant they struggled to complete it and they felt like they had no ownership or control of their workflow. 

  • Perception and pride

This lack of autonomy and lags in development work had stripped team members of self-confidence and they collectively believed that other teams questioned their value and abilities. A fortnightly show-and-tell was a particular pain point. 

 

“Every two weeks,” said David McKenzie. “The other teams would present new plans and goals and provide updates on progress, and everyone would clap them on the back. But the sheer volume of operational support work thrown at these guys meant they were never able to deliver on their dev plans and goals.” 

 

The process

Elabor8 began with a collaborative health check workshop to identify specific issues and crucial areas for improvement. Recognising that expanding agile methodologies would be futile without improving the team’s confidence, culture, and engagement, Elabor8 emphasised the importance of leadership buy-in. They advocated for a different approach, freeing the team from feature work and allowing them to innovate on improving the production environment.

 

“We said ‘Hey, you’ve already got the groundwork for agile ways of working, but first let’s start talking more about culture, let’s start talking more about ownership, let’s talk more about structure’,” said David McKenzie.

 

Elabor8 explained that by treating the new DevOps team like a development team while allowing them no time or freedom to develop, create and innovate, the business was getting no value out of them. 

 

“We said, ‘Let’s take a different approach. Free them up. Make them part of the planning process. They’ll be there, they’ll see everything, they’ll be connected. But free them completely from feature work and let them innovate on how they can make the production environment better, more efficient, faster, more stable.”

 

The solution

Leadership’s decisive and generous approval was the critical catalyst that enabled the team to take control of their own workflow. While support and incident work remained essential, the autonomy granted to them for all feature work was a transformative mandate. They were entrusted with the responsibility to enhance the production environment as they saw fit.

 

“It’s a non-traditional way of thinking about DevOps. Most DevOps departments are development teams that support and operate the production environment. We created and empowered an operations team with the capability to develop.” 

 

The Elabor8 team then set about making further significant workflow changes, boosting morale, and helping the team transform their narrative. 

  • Switching to Kanban

The most tangible shift in the team was moving them from Scrum to Kanban. Operational and non-software development teams tend to work better in Kanban and flow-based systems, because of the onus on planning. They can now adapt faster and be significantly more flexible to changing priorities and demands. 

It was very important to the team to demonstrate their value to the wider team. So instead of going to the fortnightly WIPs and saying “Hey, this is what we plan to do but we haven’t been able to do it,” they instead began presenting on customer problems, delivery problems, operational and business problems, and what they were doing to solve them.  

 

“As an example,” said David McKenzie. “They would go in and say, ‘Okay, because of digitisation, label printing is now the number one common incident that gets raised. It causes X incidents a month and each of these takes X hours to fix, meaning X hours every month and costing X dollars. We’ve now solved it, you’re welcome.”

 

Fostering team bonding and encouraging a sense of fun and play was a huge part of this story. Every Friday at 3 pm, the team began going offline for coffee and cookies. It was communicated to the rest of the company that in the event of a crisis, they could be found in the tearoom, a mere 15 metres from their desks.

 

“It sounds a bit silly, but it really helped. It got them off the tools and gave them space to hang out, tell stories, and build connections. And they did.”

 

The results

With Elabor8’s guidance, this once-underperforming team became a high-performing, adaptive and super-flexible unit, proving their ability to deliver – and deliver fast – many times over. They were soon being trusted with business-critical work. When the company urgently needed a new custom platform and migration from a legacy external platform, guess who they called. 

 

They came to us because no other team could pivot and shift as fast as we could and because they didn’t trust any other team to do it,” said David McKenzie. “It was a huge moment for the team, showing just how far they’d come, just how much perceptions had changed, and a career highlight for me.”

 

Six months after the initial health check, Elabor8 ran a follow-up workshop to identify any changes in the perspective of the team across a range of issues, finding significant improvement in almost every category. 

Standouts amongst the improvements were:

  • Long-term Solutions: Focusing on long-term solutions above short-term fixes and prioritising the backlog enables the team to easily understand higher-value work for each iteration across all work streams.
  • Reduced Cycle Times: Concentrating on reducing cycle times leads to faster delivery, and the ability to prioritise high-value work created more flexibility in developing iteration plans.
  • Empowerment: The team was empowered to determine the best paths forward means production and support issues are prioritised, so improvements are actively planned and delivered. 

 

Final thoughts

This is a story about how investing in team culture, trusting people and evangelising their value can boost performance, build morale, and change perceptions. It’s also about what’s possible under “very strong, very understanding and very brave company leaders.”