Case Study of implementing SAFe in a bank

As a partner of Scaled Agile Inc., we in AgileLAB have extensive experience implementing various SAFe configurations for our clients from the EU, USA, and worldwide. Our goal is to instil sustained, value-delivering practices across every company we work with while involving every employee.

Here is an outstanding story from our recent practice. A client of ours, a large, systemically important bank in one of the Baltic nations, is from the top ten in its country by volume of assets. At the beginning of 2021, its bulky structure had about 2,000 employees, its main profit came from loans and retail operations, and its IT development was mainly outsourced.

The bank had not been fortunate enough to experience Agile advantages yet. For product development, they would resort to traditional project management (depending on the scope), and the IT department and third-party vendors devised its products. At the same time, the bank’s organisation­al structure was an outdated, silo-based hierarchical model.

At the advent of the transformation, the team still used a traditional “waterfall” approach to deliver new features. Each functional silo was doing its respective work sequentially, so ideas would take a long time before they ended up on the market. Each feature was simultaneously worked on by numerous departments (features are colour-coded on the picture).

Why Agile?
As competitors intensified their pressure, the bank’s management felt the urge to render the company faster, braver, and generally more agile. The management came to recognise that the traditional approach that had brought the bank here couldn’t bring it there. As problems piled up, the understanding grew that the bank needed a new approach.

The Agile Transformation was meant to face the following challenges:

  • To increase both the quality and number of product hypotheses.
  • To reduce the time of getting product hypotheses to the market, their thorough testing while developing new product niches, and to increase the importance of value propositions for the customers.
  • To enable business – IT interaction and to create a body of rules and a supportive environment that allows for collaborative decision-making.
  • To make the employees more involved in working towards the shared goals.
  • To transform the bank into an attractive workplace for young IT professionals.

With both whys and challenges identified, the bank went about searching for means and ways to build a new management system.
Choosing a framework
When choosing an Agile framework, we took into account the goals, the size of the company, and the client’s vision.

Of the many other options, we have chosen the SAFe, with key decisive factors the following:

  • SAFe is the most popular Agile scaling framework.
  • Its documentation is both broad and well-structured.
  • It contains tools for business and IT alignment and synchronisation.
  • It allows one to begin the transformation with smaller areas of the organisation.
  • It explicitly describes the Program and Portfolio levels, as well as Strategy sync and alignment.
When conducting Agile Transformations, we, as the AgileLAB team, recommend starting with the middle level of the organisation (i.e. Program level), having secured support from top management.

Our client decided to start Transformation with SAFe Essential configuration in two pilot Value Streams – Retail and Corporate business.
The Transformation
Together with our client, we came up with a custom implementation roadmap, based on the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. The Transformation started in June 2021.
Six months’ results

As a result of the pilot transformation, the features in the Agile Value Streams became available faster, while the teams performed important tasks without being distracted by context switching. Participation in planning became a duty and a privilege for everyone involved, bringing about a common understanding and shared responsibility.

Key factors behind our success:
  • As prescribed by SAFe, we first implemented the Transformation only in a part of the company as a pilot project. Since it worked out well, we scaled it up to the company level, resulting in a dramatic increase in efficiency.
  • As we were only transforming certain teams, they were unable to deliver final products on their own. Given that, we had to secure support and understanding on part of the rest of the company, and only then was it successful.
  • We ensured that the decision-makers were involved, which was crucial for the success of the transformation.
  • Transition to a new product management system is impossible without solid Product competencies. Continuous training, keeping track of the current approaches and product frameworks, and individual support.
  • It’s not enough to make a change – we need to make it sustainable. It took creating a guiding coalition to keep Agile transformation going for as long as was needed.
Here is what our clients say about half a year of Agile Transformation journey

“We have accelerated on certain tasks”.

– Corporate business Value Stream Product Owner.

“Our team succeeded in increasing transparency of interactions with their bank colleagues and vendors. It made priority management possible”.

– Retail Value Stream Product Manager.

“We managed to unite our business and IT teams and to focus them on a common goal. We became better at hearing each other, and we are working as one team now”.

– Corporate business Value Stream Product Manager.

“The decision-making speed and the level of requirements have increased”.

– Corporate business Value Stream Product Owner.

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