A first step to being Agile
8 August 2016
The customer-supplier relationship is a reality for suppliers based in countries such as India, China, or the Southeast Asian countries. I was part of the leadership team of an India-based supplier that brought about a transformational change in a large bank in the Netherlands. One of the things that we (supplier and customer) focused on to get the team to concentrate on the end goal was end-user satisfaction through the implementation of a "one-team" culture.
Senior management buy-in
All of us on the leadership teams (supplier and customer) realized that an Agile transformation is not achievable if only the development teams were practicing Agile. The key was to have management align with the Agile thought process. This involved training management and opening discussions between key leaders from the supplier as well as customers. I was lucky to have worked with a few of the great thought leaders from the Dutch bank who started thinking of all the suppliers as "one integrated team" (way beyond just being a partner who delivers products for a customer). The focus changed from achieving service levels to achieving business goals, and the leadership discussions changed from service-level reviews to strategy discussions on meeting business goals through the one-team culture.
Implementation of a one-team culture also involved cultural sensitizations. Indians had to understand the Dutch culture and the Dutch had to understand the Indian culture. This meant knowing each individual, their families, the way they work, the way they talk, the way they respond, etc. We focused on cultural sensitization sessions to understand each other's cultures. We celebrated each other’s festivals. We appreciated each other’s games (cricket, hockey, football). Essentially, we started getting close to each other, just like one large family.
Engagement is about a "What can I do for you?" mindset
Most relationships fall apart because you always end up thinking about what you can get out of a relationship. We (the bank and suppliers) worked with our teams to make them understand that engagement and relationship are instead about what you can give to a relationship. We realized that once this is established firmly in everyone's mind, the engagement between customer and supplier changes from a customer-supplier engagement to a one-team engagement.
Colocation at supplier's premises
The customer and supplier teams have to work together if they want to achieve anything near to a one-team culture. We saw that the supplier teams made up 80 – 90% of the total teams. It was commercially impractical to have the supplier teams travel to the Netherlands. Doing so would have put unprecedented pressure on the budgets. We decided to have some of the key customer team members, such as product owners or architects, travel to Mumbai or Bangalore to work with the development team for extended periods. This helped reap the benefits of colocation and at the same time build a one-team culture.
When we worked on the Dutch bank projects, we realized that it was a combination of work done by multiple suppliers and customers located at multiple locations. The one-team culture is not only about taking the initiative between a customer and a supplier but also the suppliers' efforts that must bring about a similar culture to be able to work with each other.
We had local communication channels in India among different suppliers working for the bank; that is, we tried to resolve situations between Mumbai and Delhi teams instead of taking a Mumbai–Amsterdam–Delhi channel. This involved consciously picking up a phone and speaking to other suppliers, inviting other suppliers for customer meets, having team members working from each other's premises, etc.
Alignment with business KPIs
The initiative was to not think service-level but to think business KPIs. This was the brainchild of the bank's CIO who inspires me even today. All suppliers and customer teams work toward the business KPIs, which was measured frequently.
We observed that most of the time, whenever it concerned a specific situation or project, it was all about the perception of the business. Getting the business involved in terms of providing inputs overall and everyone (supplier and customer) taking accountability for the inputs was critical. All of us, including the suppliers and customers, put a portion of our "money on the table" and drew from it only when we delivered what was required by the business. To be fair, it was not about the money on the table, it was about getting it in our blood that we were delivering business value and business satisfaction. It was not about delivering a few projects.
The success of Agile beyond colocated teams lies in Agile leadership (supplier and customer) accepting that the large development teams may not ever travel to the customer's premises due to commercial and practicality reasons. Also, multicultural and multicountry customer teams are becoming the norm, and so the relationship is slowly moving from many-to-many in terms of customers and suppliers. Going forward, customers and suppliers will have to work at developing innovative ways to make supplier and customer teams work like one team to make global projects Agile and ultimately successful.
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