By the end of 2008 the Corporate Information Technology Services (CITS) group of Premier, Inc. knew it needed to make a radical change. Premier—a formative healthcare alliance with over 2,200 hospital members worldwide—depended on CITS to develop software that helped healthcare facilities collect and analyze clinical and financial data to improve their efficiency, a core feature of Premier’s work. But over the years, as Premier and its membership numbers grew, the software development process within CITS had become bottlenecked and slow. Internally, CITS had developed a reputation for overpromising and under delivering: deadlines were chronically missed, and business stakeholders were frustrated and nervous that the delays would begin to weaken relationships with Premier’s core members. Part of the problem was that business leaders didn’t understand why the delays were happening.
Lack of talent was not the problem. Premier had a gifted team of over 200 program managers, testers, software developers and directors. Rather, the challenge was in the development process itself. Groups within CITS worked on aspects of the same project simultaneously using their own project management approach, including SCRUM, Kanban methods, or their own hybrid systems. But these approaches only addressed the needs of individual teams. The disparate approaches were actually hurting the company because they prevented the teams from looking at problems holistically and coming up with solutions that met broader goals.
Kelly Horton, director of the CITS group, knew there must be a better way to bring incongruent teams together to improve the speed and quality of CITS projects. “We were all speaking different languages,” Horton says. “Business stakeholders who were not development savvy couldn’t understand what we were doing or why things were held up. We weren’t able to demo a project incrementally and that was problematic.”
Premier’s new CEO also recognized the problem and tasked the company to “start thinking like an enterprise”—she wanted groups to work together to drive product development from business, not technical, needs. Horton began looking for an outside consultancy that could help Premier revolutionize its development practices.
Net Objectives’ team of professional coaches and consultants improve the ability of technology companies to deliver software to their customers. A number of process methodologies are employed but the company is especially known for its expertise in the Lean-Agile management approach. Rather than make changes to individual teams, the Lean-Agile approach helps companies look at how groups interact, and focus on how work flows between them. With roots in automobile manufacturing, Lean-Agile is used by software companies to eliminate waste, deliver products faster, and promote teamwork—in short, strengthen companies as a whole.
Net Objectives had trained over a hundred companies to operate with this approach, and had already helped apply the Lean-Agile method to another Premier development group with great success. Now, Horton’s CITS group was interested in bringing Net Objectives on board to help her teams address the process management deficiencies that were slowing them down. In late 2008, a Net Objectives coach came to Premier and met with Horton and other development and business leaders.
Horton knew right away that Net Objectives was the right fit for the job. “The coach kept saying there was a more optimal way of doing things, and it hit me as very logical and obvious,” Horton says. “You could tell he was a practitioner who understood what we were going though. He won me over immediately.”
Premier’s CITS group began working with Net Objectives in early 2009. Net Objective’s first task was to train internal teams about the Lean-Agile methodology, and get managers and business leaders behind a major reorganization of Premier’s development practices. “We needed to get buy-in from everyone and sometimes it was a struggle,” Horton recalls. “But Net Objective’s coach could field questions on the fly and wasn’t fluxed by people who were resistant.”
With key managers and team members finally on board, Net Objectives picked a pilot project to apply Lean-Agile approaches. The chosen pilot was for an advisory product, used by Premier’s clients to procure supplies at competitive rates. Net Objectives worked with the team for a week, applying cross-functional training that put QA, product demo, testers and program managers in the same room to solve development challenges, rather than having them work with the old siloed approach.
Net Objectives helped the pilot team deliver four releases in the first ten months of using the Lean-Agile approach, a much faster deployment than before. The rest of the company started to take notice. “That early success got the business side jazzed,” Horton says. “Other groups wanted to know when their team could move to this methodology.”
By late 2009, Objectives had trained nearly 100 Premier employees and had rolled out Lean-Agile approaches for several CITS groups. By the end of the year, CITS had transitioned almost entirely to a Lean-Agile approach. “From a program management perspective, Net Objectives turned our process on its ear,” Horton says. “Everything we do now is very different from what we were doing three years ago.”
For one, Horton says that development schedules are much more visual, putting managers and business stakeholders at ease. Rolling whiteboards are used to show project status and schedules, which are also translated into easy-to-understand, updated shared documents. Before, Horton says, there was “zero visibility” for business mangers to understand project statuses. “They’d always be waiting for something, and then it would escalate on one side and there would be a lot of finger pointing,” Horton says. “Now things don’t get hot and we have a very collaborate process. Backlogs are understood. Our business speaks the same language across the board.”
Also, because of the improved visibility of projects, Horton says development teams are able to more easily demo projects to business managers, rather than find out later they had missed the mark. “Before, we had a case when a business manager asked a development team to overhaul an Access database,” Horton says. “At the first demo the manager realized he hadn’t communicated critical requirements to the team and they had gone down the wrong path. That wouldn’t happen now.”
Horton says one of the most important lessons learned from Net Objectives was to “stop starting, and start finishing” projects. “Like many companies, we had this misconception that we’d get more done if several teams were working on parts of the same project at once,” Horton says. “We learned this only slows us down.” Now, CITS groups collaborate to complete one part of a project, pause to review the value of the work, and then move on to the next task.
Horton says another important skill learned from Net Objectives was how to prioritize the most important projects. “We are a very prudent organization in terms of spending,” Horton says. “We learned how to stop wasting time and resources on things that weren’t the highest priority.” With an improved way to show the status of projects, business leaders can more easily track financials against development goals.
In addition to the results, Horton says she greatly appreciated Net Objective’s coaching style. “I can’t say enough about them,” Horton says. “They have genuine trainers who are really excited about this stuff… their enthusiasm is contagious.” Horton also points out that Net Objectives “gets you to stand up on your own and be self-sufficient, rather than pitch you on more consultants to hire.”
Overall, Horton says Premier’s partnership with Net Objectives turned the company into a leaner enterprise, with faster and more effective development practices. This year, Horton helped roll out a new, overarching development process called Lean Enterprise Solutions Delivery, the core of which is built on learnings from Net Objectives. The approach blends program management, QA and development into the same process. “It’s much easier,” Horton says, “and we have many more deployments than we did in the past.”
Feedback from business leaders has been equally positive. “I just got an email from a stakeholder last week,” Horton says. “We had a member who was threatening to leave our membership because they weren’t seeing enough value. Our manager was able to promise a solution and a delivery date, which we easily met.”
Horton learned later that the member was pleased with the response and had decided to keep its membership. “The business manager told me that we would never have able to save that client without Lean-Agile,” Horton says. “We’re now confident we can give our members what they need, and deliver on time.”