Agile Methodology: How Australia Post Gets Rapid Results

On the back wall of Cameron Gough’s workspace at Australia Post’s Bourke Street headquarters in Melbourne, is a “Success Wall” – a montage of 80 coloured cue cards. Scrawled on each card is a task aimed at improving customer experience. More than an attractive multicoloured backdrop, these cards are a powerful symbol of the transformation in Australia Post’s digital methodology. And the wow factor? They’re all finished.

Gough, whose title is General Manager of Australia Post’s Digital Delivery Centre, talks enthusiastically about small, collaborative teams, face-to-face conversations, continual customer feedback, flexibility and the rapid results.

Here are some examples from the “Success Wall”. Leave it in a safe place, launched in mid-November, alerts MyPost customers to pending deliveries and provides delivery options to leave their parcel in a safe place if they aren’t at home.

Other cue cards record the successful launch of print-as-you-go labels for parcels, digital in-store customer receipts and digital police checks. A pink cue card from April marks the launch of Australia Post’s Apple Watch app, which took just six weeks to develop at a cost of about $50,000.

“Using a traditional project-based approach that project could have taken 6 months” Gough says. The traditional, or “waterfall”, approach, he explains, is a stepped, sequential process with a defined outcome, requiring an initial business case, scoping out of requirements, architecture, design, testing and more. ”This approach isn’t a good fit for the digital space, where we need shorter cycle times and an iterative approach so that our offerings are always evolving”.

Teamwork, talking, ‘T-shaped people’

When Gough joined Australia Post in July 2012 having previously worked at ANZ, Accenture and PwC, his brief was to change the way the digital division – then numbering 15 people – worked and to scale it up.

The digital division now includes multifunctional teams of six-to-ten people, grouped into three “tribes”. A typical team has a business analyst, a designer, a tester, several developers and an “iteration manager” who operates like a conductor, managing the workflow to get the best out of the team. Gough says he looks for “T-shaped people” who have deep knowledge of their specialist area (the vertical part of the “T”) but know enough about other areas to help out if needed (the horizontal part of the “T”).

Each team has a kanban wall (a Japanese term that roughly translated means “cards you can see”) that, like Gough’s office, is a wall covered in cue cards. At the left is the backlog section, with a “user story” on each card outlining the related task. Here you’ll find tasks such as “Add login widget to home page” or “Allow user to search for parcel lockers in local area”.

Over a two-week period, the chosen card gradually moves from the left of the kanban to the right as it progresses through stages such as “ready for development”, “development complete” and “ready to test”. A photo of each team member is stuck on the part they are working on that day, while a blockage is highlighted by a stop sign. Says Gough: “the cards are really important. Besides visually helping the team understand where their work is at, the cards encourage discussion between team members and build an alignment of understanding – something that’s harder to do over email or through formal documents”.

A key aspect of this way of working is a daily team meeting (sometimes called a stand-up) held at the Kanban wall. Generally, each team member talks in turn about their work, any issues they have, successes, dependencies and other things of value for the team to hear and discuss.

5 tips to driving a successful agile transformation

  1. Focus on the culture by recruiting people who are collaborative, non-hierarchical, and have a hunger to learn and improve continually.
  2. Recognise you will need to change the broader working environment to sustain the changes. You need to change things such as governance processes, funding models and processes to support continual evolutionary change.
  3. Invest in software tooling and automation to support teams working faster.
  4. Don’t be too ambitious with the first piece of work. It can take a while to build capability and experience in working in a lean and agile way, so start with less complex challenges.
  5. Don’t overthink it, just get started. You’ll learn more by doing than by planning.

Automate everything

Underlying the speedy teamwork is leading edge technology, including high levels of automation.

As an example, getting a simple feature change out to customers used to take 50 days or more due to the manual approach taken to infrastructure, testing and code deployments. “This was simply too slow, and too error prone, to meet the expectations of ourselves or our customers” explains Gough.

Through a significant investment in automation and cloud capabilities the teams are now able to get changes out to customers much more rapidly.

“Ultimately this capability is about speeding up the pace of change and maximizing the time we spend creating great experiences for our customers”, says Gough. And the numbers speak for themselves, the team have moved from 20 customer releases in 2012 to more than 800 releases per year today.

Big-picture shift

It’s all very well to change the way of working, but Gough says the new approach is not sustainable without changes to the broader working environment. By this he means addressing the way an organization approaches things like investment governance, processes, and funding models. “Shifting to a new way of working that involves continuous, iterative delivery of change can quickly lose steam if these areas aren’t also evolved,” he says.

A traditional business case model of fixed cost, time and scope is a poor fit for the digital space where the best customer experiences are created through an iterative delivery and learning process. “You’ll never surprise on the upside if your focus is on locking down scope up front and not leaving any room to iterate.”

Most of the digital teams now seek funding for a broad opportunity area, such as mobile, then set a team to work on creating great customer experiences in that area. It’s an investment model called “Capacity Funded Investments”. Scope is continuously developed and prioritised based on business needs and customer feedback. This approach empowers teams and provides flexibility to pivot and re-steer as circumstances change.

“Working with a customer focus is our priority” Gough says. Initiatives include customer-themed hackathons, organising teams around customer-focused missions such as parcel tracking, giving teams access to customer feedback and funding teams to break down difficult customer problems and work out what to do.

The final piece of the puzzle is culture. Gough says he’s been fortunate to be able to grow the Digital Delivery Centre to 270 people almost from scratch and hire for the right culture.

Gough looks for inquisitive, collaborative people who like learning, read widely, tinker at home, go to meet-ups, and in short are passionate. Experience working in an agile environment isn’t necessary either. Rather, Gough’s team looks for people who understand the underlying principles of agile working; collaboration, maintaining flow and working in a lean way.

As for the success wall, it’s here to stay – “The teams are so focused on getting the next thing finished, they forget how much they’ve done.”

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