A Truly Agile Federal Government Focuses on Flow

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“To service citizens well, governments will need to be more integrated. Breaking down silos and seamlessly connecting and streamlining data and process flows are integral to finding new solutions, enhancing security, and creating personalized and engaging citizen experiences.” William Eggers, Mike Turley, Government Trends 2020, Deloitte Insights, 2019

As the digital-first world further intensifies the urgent need for faster IT modernization across the U.S. federal government, IT and program leaders must find a better way to manage their software delivery organizations to improve decision-making where it matters. Much like the private sector, accelerating adaptive response is key to supporting key government programs, especially as the United States navigates the Novel Economy and seeks to support the pressing needs of citizens during these challenging times. 

From AI to the cloud, to predictive analytics and innovative systems, there are few places that software isn’t impacting the government. Improving software delivery at scale can drive real tangible change to how the government operates and supports society. Yet despite obstacles as old as time itself—legacy infrastructure and approaches (such as waterfall), organizational and political complexity, regulations and compliance, funding, discomfort with change—there are Agile development federal success stories, such as the Air Force’s Kessel Run program, signaling that true IT modernization is achievable with the right approach.

Think Big, Start Small

Federal agencies and departments boast some of the most secure and advanced mainframes on the planet. Yet at the same time, the government’s approach to software has tended to lag behind the rest of the digital world. A long and onerous requirements process, complex architecture, strict governance, risk and compliance, and a drawn-out acquisition process that can result in an equally drawn-out delivery process. A few years ago, the Air Force was hampered by lead times of up to nine years (three for development, three to contract, three to deploy). Meeting pressing requirements nearly a decade later is simply not sufficient in the modern climate. 

Driving real change in such an environment is always going to be an uphill battle, but not impossible. The many accomplishments of the Air Force are a fine example. For years, 100 percent of its software development was outsourced. Recognizing this cumbersome approach was holding the branch back from being responsive enough for mission-critical programs, a forward-thinking cross-division team led by Bryon Kroger (now of Rise8) took action by seeking to take control of their own software capability. 

With the right combination of visionary leadership, an engaged team and a determination to do things properly—plus timing and opportunity—Kroger’s small team scored an influential early win with Project Jigsaw. They deployed an automated planning tool for tank refuelling to replace a rudimentary white board system in just 120 days, paying for itself in just over a week ($500,000). The initiative is currently saving the Air Force $12 million a month. 

The success of the project pricked the ears of leadership and provided the team with the license to take on more projects to scale the impact of Agile development. Over the past year and half, the development team has grown from eight people to 500. Key to this success is continuous end-to-end delivery against key outcomes, with a steely focus on flow to remove inefficiencies related to waterfall projects, manual process, data entry, and applications that don’t communicate well with each other. 

Click image to listen to Bryon Kroger’s fascinating discussion with Dr. Mik Kersten about his work at Kessel Run and the Air Force

Agile = Flow

In lieu of the ever-elusive silver bullet, program and IT leaders who are looking to become more adaptive and responsive should look to think less about Agile and more about flow. Defined as the movement of value from customer insight to product delivery, flow is a fundamental prerequisite to Agile success

Finding a way to see, track and continuously measure the flow across value streams against clear business outcomes is key. It can help leaders and managers to swiftly remove impediments and enable them to harness the rapid feedback loops that serve the private sector so well. It’s a significant concept, known as value stream management (VSM), that enables decision-makers to focus on the end-to-end delivery model supporting the customer experience, whether that’s a citizen, government employee, entity or business.  

Thinking about flow can help drive true agility across projects, initiatives and products. When we’re talking about flow in IT, we’re talking about understanding the rate of delivery of complete units of value, through the network of contributing teams and the tools that support them to improve it. That requires end-to-end thinking from requirement to delivery and back, centered around the toolchain that underpins the work that plans, build, delivers and supports systems.

Did Your Organization Wake Up as a Software Company? You Need Value Stream Management (VSM)

Disjointed Teams, Fragmented Visibility 

Automation offers immense efficiencies to the federal government, with the potential to free up 1.3 billion hours. The capability of automating and visualizing the flow of complex data between software delivery tools, and the abstraction and analysis of this data in correlation to program outcomes, is growing in popularity with federal agencies and contractors.

One of the main reasons that agencies are struggling to optimize their flow and see ROI is the way that product-critical information is shared between key stakeholders. Program and IT leads suffer from a severe lack of end-to-end visibility, traceability and control of the software delivery process. The specialists involved—program manager, project manager, developer, tester, IT support and so on—operate within their own function-built tools, and these tools do not automatically share information between data points.

Laborious and time-consuming manual work (through duplicate entry between systems, email, status meetings, spreadsheets) creates a fragmented view of how work is flowing. It doesn’t show the full picture in real-time in terms of where there is a lot of wasted effort and long wait states. Not only is this productivity and budget draining, the fidelity of this data is also compromised (incomplete, outdated, missing, prone to human error). 

With no clear view into the reality of work, decision-makers are deprived of one source of truth to effectively track deliverables against budget and timeframes and make decisions to remove waste and improve flow. This impacts how they support mission-critical programs, collaborate with contractors and trace work for regulations and compliance. This time lost is time damaging the citizen and employee experience, while total cost of deployment increases. Fortunately, automating the flow of this work can spin this issue on its head.

Accelerating Mission-Critical Software Delivery

Automating Flow

Automating the flow of product-critical information between key stakeholders can unify all key systems that plan, build and maintain a digital product and service for a government program. One such system is IBM DOORS, a staple in nearly every government agency and the federal systems integrators that support their missions. 

System engineers rely on DOORS to manage the requirements for their complex and mission-critical products. Yet, in the last decade, the software implementation of those requirements is managed in modern enterprise Agile Planning tools like Atlassian Jira. The ideal state has both parties—system engineers and software delivery teams—each working in their tool of choice, while sharing a single-source-of-truth and a shared visibility into progress and outcomes.

An enterprise-grade integration tool, such as Tasktop Hub, can support the automated flow between tools to improve the quality, efficiency and collaboration between these key teams:

Without integration

  • Manual duplicate entry and inefficient collaboration
  • Error-prone and laggy updates between systems
  • No visibility into another party’s progress
  • Painful manual traceability between requirements and code
  • Context between related work items is frequently lost

With Integration

  • Unlock thousands of hours in capacity with automation
  • Near real-time automated cross-tool updates
  • Get the latest status without leaving your tool
  • Automate traceability embedded by the integration
  • Preserve context and reflect relationships in both tools

With integration in place, you can automate new and updated requirements from DOORS to Jira and allow practitioners to exchange and collaborate directly from within their tool of choice.

There are myriad benefits, such as:

  • Automate handoffs: Work smarter and boost productivity by bringing the work to the people. Eliminate duplicate data entry between tools and give your teams more time to focus on delivering business value.
  • No code customization: Scale velocity improvements to the entire organization without the overhead of expensive developer hours. Configure any workflow and highly nuanced behavior, all through an intuitive graphical interface.
  • End-to-end traceability: Establish automated traceability from requirements to verified implementation, removing manual and error-prone practices. Easily maintain compliance and scale traceability across large distributed teams.

It’s key to use a scalable solution that keeps up with the pace of the constantly evolving software delivery organization, especially in terms of tracing flow from external partners. 

5 Tips to Begin Simplifying Traceability in Enterprise Software Delivery

Measuring Flow

Just as important as automating flow is measuring it to address bottlenecks and visualize the impact of improvements to determine if the needle is moving for the mission. A specific set of value stream metrics, known as Flow Metrics, can provide technological and non-technological leadership with key insights to identify what’s working — and what’s not. 

Flow Metrics measure the rate of organizational value delivery for software products through the lens of your users and enable you to understand your current state. These outcome-based metrics abstract away details like team structure, technical architecture and tool implementations to create a clear set of metrics focused on mission outcomes. Crucially, they’re presented in a common language that program and IT leaders understand to establish:

  • Whether value streams are meeting or on course to meet key program deliverables 
  • Insight into what’s slowing down teams from ideation to operation
  • Better discussions around resources and capacity 
  • Whether capacity of FTEs and contractors is being maximized
  • A visualization of the impact of changes to track continuous improvement
  • Success stories to share with other departments and programs

Speak to our friendly Federal Team if you want to know more about measuring and managing your value streams around flow to become more adaptive responsive.

Need for Speed: Cubic’s Journey with Tasktop Viz™ and Flow Metrics


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