Agile Leadership

Enter the Dojo

Target introduces an innovative agile training ground for its employees

When visitors first look around the buzzing hive in Target’s Minneapolis North Campus known as the Dojo, there are two things they can’t miss. First, whiteboards are everywhere and the energy is contagious – this is a place and time set aside for intense collaborative effort. Second, these folks are very, very busy, and they’re unmistakably excited about what they’re doing. 
 
What exactly is the Dojo? It’s a dedicated space where teams from all over the company come for a dedicated six weeks of intensive skills-building. Think of it as an incubator on steroids — the ultimate testing ground for teams learning DevOps in the most hands-on way possible. 
 
Launched two years ago with three teams, the Dojo has now grown to house 12 teams at a time, all working alongside each other in separate pods. Even more recently, both Target’s downtown headquarters and its Bangalore office added three-team Dojos, bringing the total of teams in training to 18.

“When we give tours of the Dojo, we say it’s a place where you can learn to practice a master craft, like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid,” says Brent Nelson, Operations Analyst. “We provide an immersive hyper-paced learning experience that’s not like anything else.”
 
How it all started

The Dojo is just one piece – though an important one – of a much larger rethinking that began more than three years ago to transform Target’s organizational culture. Motivated by an urgent need to transition from project- to product-based management, the company undertook to introduce a combination of Lean, agile, and DevOps principles, tools, and practices. 
 
“Under the project-based approach, engineers and team members were assigned to one project that could run a year, even two years, and when they finished they would move on to next project, so there was no accountability after the build team was done,” says Stacie Peterson, director of agile practices and Dojo. “Another problem was that we had 800 projects going on at same time, way too many even for a company this large. The decision to shift to a product model meant we could have 80 products going at one time, greatly increasing our ability to prioritize and focus on the highest value priorities for Target and build them faster.”
 
Nelson also points to Target’s desire to bring things in-house as a major factor in creating the Dojo. “Target, like many other companies throughout 2000s and 2010s, did a lot of outsourcing and we made a strategic decision to start bringing more of that work to core teams, and flip the ratio of teams to contractors,” Nelson says. And to do that, they needed to “build new muscle” among the engineers. “We decided to do that by creating an immersive environment to skill up, and we needed to do it across a broad array of people,” adds Nelson. “And that meant bringing in an entire team at once.” 
 
Launched in the Spring of 2015, the Dojo was initially focused on IT teams, but increasingly serves other areas of the company as well; recently teams from HR and Marketing have been among those trained. While it was originally seen as part of the support structure for the agile transformation, the Dojo has proved to be more of an engine powering change, says Nelson. “Not only does the Dojo help teams to build engineering acumen and deliver technology solutions, it also has served to accelerate the cultural transformation of the organization.”
 
The decision to Dojo

It all starts with an intake form, in which a team explains who they are, what area of the company they’re from, and what work they’d like to do. That gets them into the Dojo’s backlog, which is currently booked out about six months. A quick follow-up consultation covers what the Dojo is about and what to expect.
 
“We explain that it’s about learning to do things in a different way, more effectively, but not necessarily faster,” says Christopher Schwartz, Lead Agile Coach. “It’s about getting new tools in the toolset, and it might lead to speed in the end, but that’s just one potential benefit.”
 
“By means of a hyper sprint, we’re providing teams with the ability to build muscle memories over the course of a six-week period, during which they can get as many as 12 sprints completed,” Nelson says. “When they transition back to the work environment and it’s time to do sprint planning and story writing, they know what that means.”
 
The coaches work with the team to pick a start date, lay out the goals they want to accomplish, and discuss the measures that would be most useful. They explain that everyone on the team has to be fully dedicated during the core hours and do some team-building events. About three weeks before the team enters the Dojo experience, they do a chartering exercise designed to both explain what the Dojo is and to make sure the team is a good match for the process. “We talk about who is the community involved, who is the product for, and who are the stakeholders?” Schwartz says. “Then we do some skills matrixing to make sure we have the right skill set on the team. We want to make sure we’re going to be able to help them on their journey.” 
 
A day in the life of the Dojo

From Day One in the Dojo it’s go, go go. “Teams don’t come in here to do a training lab scenario; they come in here with their backlog and bring in what they’re actually working on,” says Schwartz. 
 
Working with a coach, the team maps out that backlog, sets goals and decide on specifically how to measure achievement. They may end up working on one thing or five things, but we map out what work we think we can get done, decide on what minimally viable product we want to create that will show function and how do we iteratively add value,” Schwartz says.
 
The structure is carefully planned, with two sprints a week starting with demos on Mondays and Wednesdays. “Everything we do in the Dojo is very prescriptive. We do it in a certain way to facilitate learning,” says Schwartz.

The Dojo’s sprint structure teaches teams to work in incremental fashion and break down work into small chunks, something many of them need help with, Nelson says. “We ask teams ‘How can you get the feedback from the client in the fastest way possible?’ When you’re building it incrementally and demoing twice a week you know you’re on the right path and that feature is exactly what the customer wanted.”
 
The result, says Peterson, is almost instantly visible in speed. “Just looking at the time savings from an engineering perspective, something that would have required a work order and months to build can now be done in half a day. That’s modern engineering at its best.”
 
But speed is not the only concern. Teams are taught to grade progress according to four measures: Value, speed, quality, and happiness, says Peterson. And each of the four is considered in relation to the others. “Is value going up as well as speed, or is quality going down as speed goes up?” she says. “These four quadrant measures help to balance each other, so we don’t want to neglect one of these while pursuing another.” As for happiness, it must be measured for all involved. “Is the guest happy? Is the team happy? It can’t just be one or the other.” 
 
Learning by example

So how does the Dojo actually work? Let’s take the example of a 15-person team that spent November and December 2016 in the Dojo focused on modernizing the stores’ replenishment system. This is the system that manages all Target products that pass through the stores, tracking stock from when it hits the doors to when it goes home with a customer, including multiple transitions from truck to backroom to shelf to checkout. The team’s goal was to update the system to be more flexible and adaptable by implementing a continuous integration pipeline. Even before the end of the six weeks, results were impressive. 

“Where previously it would take anywhere from five to 16 teams to go through and build and configure the server that they do these applications on, they can now do that in under an hour,” says Schwartz. “That’s allowing them to rapidly deploy and test their product and get feedback from the customer – the stores – and keep continuously improving.”

In the Dojo, teams also learn how to troubleshoot issues on the fly without losing momentum. In another recent success story, a team responsible for resolving and remedying issues with item descriptions on Target.com created a new dashboard that allows them to see the flow of data coming from vendors, thus managing volume spikes and issues. When an issue with the new tools arose during their time in the Dojo, the team resolved it within a matter of minutes, whereas previously it would have been subject to a seven-hour backlog.
 
But this part of the process, known as the Challenge, is only half of what makes the Dojo so effective. The other area, known as the Practice, houses permanent core teams that serve as reservoirs of experience. “These are teams that are developing the practices and technologies the other teams are learning,” Schwartz says. “They’re experts in a certain product or tool who can be on standby for when challenge teams need help to get over a roadblock.” The result, says Schwartz, is “a holistic sharing environment.” 
 
The practice coaches spot and help the team add missing skills so they have the full toolset needed to function with full independence. “One team has control of the entire path, they’re not handing it off to other teams, so they need to understand all those practices and technologies that they previously had across teams,” says Schwartz. “But when we start in the Dojo, one team might be missing one or two skills sets, another team might be missing six, so that’s where we leverage our coaches to instill all the skill sets.”
 
All aboard the agile train

Another important function of the Dojo is to head off one of the most common agile pitfalls by involving product management in DevOps training right alongside their teams. “We want to make sure they’re not becoming roadblocks by accident, so we make sure the training includes plenty of interaction between the team and product owner, and between team and direct manager,” says Schwartz.

“We get management on the same speed by having them come down to the Dojo with the team at the beginning,” Schwartz says. “Some stay for the whole project and work with the teams day in and day out, others come in and out, but it’s important they watch the team work and see what they’re delivering.”
 
Managers are invited to demos twice a week and to the completion celebration at the end of the Dojo. “We usually see all levels of management coming down and showing support,” says Schwartz.
 
And when needed, multiple teams aligned on a product can be co-trained even if they’re not in the same location or not on exactly the same schedule, explains Schwartz. “For instance, I started a team today and then in two weeks we’ll start two new teams that are part of same product, and then we will starttwo in Bangalore, so effectively we will have five teams, all on same page,learning the same concepts.”
 
Looking forward to a busy future

With the main North Campus Dojo now regularly booked out and the downtown and Bangalore Dojos also booked out with three teams each, it’s clear the Dojo concept is a success. More than 70 teams have now come through the Dojo to date. 

The Dojo has won accolades both within and without the company. Calling it “Probably the best space we have in technology,” CIO and Chief Digital Officer Mike McNamara told Forbes: “The energy is magnificent. Having twenty teams who are working together to create something is fabulous.” 

Meanwhile, other companies are knocking on the door, asking to tour the Dojo with an eye to copying the concept. Asked about the most common reaction from visitors during these tours, Schwartz says: “People think this is one of the most innovative things they’ve seen in years. Basically they want to buy up the Dojo and take it home with them.”