Episode 14 — Tim Kelly, the SAFe Agilist

Episode #14
Original Air Date: 07.19.2016

29 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Tim Kelly

In this episode, we speak with Executive Director of Technology for McKesson’s Business Performance Services, Tim Kelly. Tim has more than 20 years of experience in information technology, information systems management, software and product development, program and project management, as well as wearing many other hats.

Tim joins the team in the studio to talk about his experience in program and project management and what it means to be a SAFe Agilist (Scaled Agile Framework).

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"But if you have a large product that comprises many teams, then Agile in and of itself, even lean Agile, tends to not break down, but become challenging when you want to scale large teams and have them understand the product vision, how they interact together. And that was a challenge we faced and one we had to wrestle with. And that’s when we began to look at the Scaled Agile Framework."

- Tim Kelly

"d a great deal of time – a phrase that I’m really fond of is “Don’t let great be the enemy of good.” And teams with that structure, to your point, Andy, you end up in this spot where everybody wants to get it perfect."

- Tim Kelly

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NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  It’s a great opportunity to talk about what matters most to you.  Whether you’re a professional project manager, or maybe you’re working toward one of your certifications, we want to help spark your imagination, light a fire under you, and encourage you along the way.  And we do that by talking about issues, friends in the field, and hearing from those in the trenches who are doing the job of project management.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are two guys who know the score when it comes to project management.  They’ve been there, done that.  They know what it takes to succeed.  And they are here to help you succeed.  They are our resident experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  And guys, as we look back over our previous podcasts, we’ve had some amazing guests on our show.  And Andy, it looks like we’ve got another heavy-hitter today.

ANDY CROWE:  We do.  We’ve got a great guest.  Tim Kelly with McKesson is in the house today.  So welcome, Tim.

TIM KELLY:  Thank you.

NICK WALKER:  Let’s meet you, Tim; okay?  Tim Kelly, an executive director of technology for McKesson.  He’s with the company’s Business Performance Services business unit.  He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology, information systems management, software and product development, program and project management, as well as wearing many other hats.  Tim, welcome to Manage This.

TIM KELLY:  Thanks.  Awesome to be here.

NICK WALKER:  Tell us a little bit more about you.  We want to get to know you a little bit better.

TIM KELLY:  I have a kind of a unique background.  I grew up managing McDonald’s restaurants, and that was an opportunity to shape the foundation of how I understand people and how to manage profit principles.  So it was a unique opportunity.

NICK WALKER:  You know, a lot of people might laugh at that:  “I started at McDonald’s.”  But that is a perfect example of putting what you’ve learned into practice in bigger arenas.

TIM KELLY:  Absolutely.  I was studying economics at the University of Utah and had an opportunity to practice what I was studying at the same time.  I learned management principles and clearly a number of key projects.  An example would be trying to put a new HVAC on the roof.  So it had to happen, and you had to figure that out as a manager of a restaurant.  So absolutely had an opportunity to apply the principles.  I wasn’t yet certified at the time, to be clear.  This was many years ago.  But I did recently have a chance to hook up with Velociteach and become certified.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, so 2009, Nick.  I had the pleasure of standing in front of a class and looking at the eager eyes of Tim Kelly as he was mastering the Project Management Institute’s framework on project management.  And Tim and I are friends.  We go back further than that.  But it was a rare treat for me to have a buddy in the classroom.


BILL YATES:  And it was a lot of fun helping you reach that goal.

TIM KELLY:  It was awesome.  I tell you what, I also trained for a number of years.  So I opened a training business with Packard Bell NEC in my past.  And just a quick plug for the work that you guys do, the approach, the mnemonic approach about how to retain and learn information, absolutely awesome.  Scored very highly on both the pretest at the end of Bill’s session and then of course did really well on the exam.  So not only did it prove useful from an exam perspective, but I think the approach allowed me to retain the content and then leverage that in business.  So that’s just true-to-life real stuff from someone who’s gone through it and then had to leverage it.

ANDY CROWE:  Outstanding.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, bring us up to date now.  What are some of the hats you’re wearing right now?

TIM KELLY:  Let me walk you from, if I could, from when I became certified.  I had an opportunity to do some new things for the first time.  And again, the certification was the foundation of that.  I led product development and essentially grew a team of five engineers in building a new product for Hughes Telematics at the time, which then became Verizon Telematics.  We grew that five individual team members into 120 people across 12 delivery teams and built a product that gets plugged into a vehicle, transmits data to a cloud-based communication platform, and then shares that data with both, in this case, State Farm, who was a consumer of the content, and with the consumer so you could see the data.

So it started kind of my product development software engineering experience, after I was certified.  Then went on to work for McKesson and an opportunity to lead customer and technical support, which were my foundations and my roots because I began doing that with McDonald’s.  You see a thousand people a day, and you learn how to be nice to people.  It’s important.

BILL YATES:  It’s funny.  Nick, I want to jump in.  I remember talking shop with Tim when he was working with Hughes and developing this technology.  Well, later in life, and I may have told you this, Tim, later in life I plugged one of those devices into my vehicles.

TIM KELLY:  Oh, did you.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, to try to get a reduced insurance rate.  So thank you, my friend.  I think.  The jury’s still out.  Hopefully it will be a decrease and not an increase.

TIM KELLY:  Yeah.  It was a complex exercise, a lot of patents for the business.  Again, lots of learning, though, the foundation and the work you guys did for me.

NICK WALKER:  Tim, one of the things we’ve talked about on this podcast again and again is the Agile world.  Tell us a little bit about how you’ve applied all of that to the project you’re working on.

TIM KELLY:  Absolutely.  A quick bridge from that huge telematics experience.  We started with Agile for the first time.  I had not been an Agile practitioner before that.  And I was not certified in Agile at the time.  But we leveraged it, and I learned a great deal.  We scaled the teams.

Joining McKesson later on, four years later, began in customer service, moved into engineering, began applying Agile principles again, and had several teams, five different product teams with McKesson at the time, responsible for electronic medical records and practice management applications.  And it became very clear that these five different product teams could operate independently, and they could do reasonable well with Agile.

But if you have a large product that comprises many teams, then Agile in and of itself, even lean Agile, tends to not break down, but become challenging when you want to scale large teams and have them understand the product vision, how they interact together.  And that was a challenge we faced and one we had to wrestle with.  And that’s when we began to look at the Scaled Agile Framework.


TIM KELLY:  SAFe, exactly.  And SAFe is a freely available framework for scaling Agile.  There are others out there.  We chose the Scaled Agile Framework because we thought it had the most experience.  We studied the case studies that go with it, and we found it to apply best to our scenario.  And in my world we have 23 delivery teams, 160 resources across a broad spectrum of the technology framework.  So not just product development or Agile teams, which is a little bit unusual because we are a business performance services, a service-based company.

So we have IT back office, which is unusual to think, am I going to apply Agile to IT back office?  We did that.  We have 60 people in that space across various IT functions, and we have a business intelligence team, both managing, developing, managing their infrastructure.  And we applied SAFe to that group, as well.  We have classic product development in engineering, and we applied it to that group.  And then, last but not least, probably the most exciting part of the puzzle is that we have portfolio and program management, which is the core of driving SAFe successfully.

NICK WALKER:  Can we back up for just a second and tell me, what is SAFe?  How does that fit into this scenario?

TIM KELLY:  Yeah, SAFe is a model where you can take Agile teams, and kind of the secret sauce or the value proposition in SAFe behind just lean Agile…

NICK WALKER:  Secret sauce.  Did you see what he did just there?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TIM KELLY:  Little McDonald’s trade secret – is that you can, when teams get very large, how they interact to be the most efficient for both either a large-scale business or just a product, it tends to break down when you have all those teams together.  Bringing people together, a classic thing, is that we’re all over the U.S.  So we have 160 resources that are not in a single location.  So they’re all over.  But finding ways for them to communicate successfully together and partner together to understand the vision, scale and schedule the work, and prioritize it with the business is what SAFe does.

NICK WALKER:  So SAFe is a new approach overall and is probably new to a lot of people that you’ve been working with.  It was new to you.

TIM KELLY:  Absolutely.

NICK WALKER:  What are the challenges that come with applying a new approach?

TIM KELLY:  Yeah, thank you for asking.  It is – you have to both educate – I had to educate myself.  We have to educate our business partners.  And as I think about the transformation we were trying to effect, and the transformation – it’s a big program.  Maybe for all the listeners, that’s the way I would frame it is there is an enormous number of things to do.  They are linked together in smaller projects.  And the biggest challenges, of course, educating the business on the value proposition of what SAFe is and how it’s going to get them to the problems that need to be solved.

BILL YATES:  And Tim, did you have – I don’t know yet.  Were you like the champion for embracing that at McKesson?  Or did you guys have to – was there a certain sponsor who said, “Yeah, I’m behind this, let’s go do it, here’s the head of SAFe,” so to speak?

TIM KELLY:  I was the champion, if you will.  And we did have to sell the idea to our executive sponsors, to our executive leadership team.  And they came to us essentially with the way this problem unfolded.  They came to the technology teams and said, “Prioritization of work doesn’t work well.  We don’t have good visibility to work being done.  There aren’t good measures of what the work is.  And we don’t see the opportunity to plan for future strategic needs.  It feels like, technology teams, we’re just staying with the work that has to be done, and in some cases you’re not even getting that done.”  So that was the problem statement that came to the table, and that’s when we began that uncovering what’s the solution to that?  That’s how SAFe was exposed.

ANDY CROWE:  Tim, I’ve got a question for you that might come a little bit out of left field here.  So one of the things with SAFe that is a real advantage is it brings some structure to organizations, a large organization trying to implement Agile.  That can be a challenge because each team can kind of do its own thing to the degree that now they’re not even speaking the same language anymore.  And if you’re in a colocated environment, maybe you can get some synchronization through doing a scrum of scrums and having all of your teams come together.  If you don’t have the opportunity to do that easily, though, this is a great framework for it.  It brings some order to chaos.

But I want to ask you a question because one of the – I guess one of the concerns, or maybe the criticisms that SAFe receives is that it structures it so much that the teams no longer have the opportunity to be agile.  How did you guys overcome that, or deal with that?

TIM KELLY:  Yeah, a very interesting insight.  We spend a great deal of time – a phrase that I’m really fond of is “Don’t let great be the enemy of good.”  And teams with that structure, to your point, Andy, you end up in this spot where everybody wants to get it perfect.


TIM KELLY:  And they continue to strive for perfection.  Which is good.  And we back off to we don’t need – we want to strive for excellence, not for perfection.  Don’t let great be the enemy of good.  And SAFe, of course, is a framework that espouses continuous improvement, and they frame it as “relentless process improvement.”

ANDY CROWE:  I love that.

TIM KELLY:  Yeah.  And I do, too.  I love the concept of continuing to look at what you’re doing.  And it’s built into the framework, so the regular cadence is to look at the work being done and understand, did that work for us?  The other part that it brings to the table that teams can struggle with is that measurement part of, well, do I need to be 90 percent of all story points accepted in this sprint?  And these teams that we worked with, some had no framework at all.


TIM KELLY:  They had nothing.  They were doing work – these were healthcare teams, a lot of very, very talented people doing really good work.  But they didn’t have a mechanism in place.  And so there’s a whole thought process about overcoming those challenges.  But we essentially try to continuously look at what we’re doing.  And we don’t ever want to layer in so much effort that it detracts from the business value we’re delivering.

ANDY CROWE:  I love that.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  And I think about, if I’m a member of this team, and I’m not in the Atlanta area, let’s say I’m in one of the remote locations.  And life’s pretty good, man.  I know what I’m focused on.  I’ve got clear requirements.  We’ve got a pretty good velocity on our team.  We’re feeling pretty good about things.  And now I get the mandate from the headquarters office, now we’re going to use this new process, there’s a new framework, I’ve got all this extra paperwork, blah blah blah.

ANDY CROWE:  I’ve got to start wearing a tie.

BILL YATES:  Right.  You’re getting all up in my business.

TIM KELLY:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  So what I’m thinking about is, in the role that you played, was there a tipping point, maybe of adoption, or where you felt like, okay, people were paddling the boat the same way now.  People were – they were getting on board with this.  Was there, like, a breakthrough?

TIM KELLY:  Yeah, there was.  We spent many months in dialogue with the senior leadership team, those that worked with me and our executive leaders, talking about the value proposition and how to solve the problems.  And so we did set the stage for how SAFe could address those problems I mentioned earlier.  And then we spent time working to train and educate the leadership team in the technology space.  What is SAFe?  How can you get there?  And then those leaders did an outstanding job of rolling the snowball, as it were.


TIM KELLY:  Right?  Something very small in that cascading dialogue with their teams.  Here’s what we think is going to work.  And we were still months away from a launch of SAFe.  And the launch of SAFe is putting everybody – and one of the kind of unique pieces of SAFe is that you put everybody in a single room for a 10-week planning event, where for two days you plan, called “big-room planning,” and you bring everybody together for those two days, and everybody’s going to be in a single room.  So we spent months in advance of that leveraging our leadership team as a scrum team.  Here’s kind of another crazy concept where we said, “We’re not delivering software, but we have to launch this program.  How can that be done?”

A couple of quick things.  We used a system of record, so we used Rally’s Agile Central; or Rally was purchased by CA, which is now called Agile Central.  And we used a social knowledge tool.  And so we used these accelerating tools that would allow the teams to begin to record their work in a single location, give us real metrics, other tools.  And the leadership team began to stage the work, like from a program perspective.  What needs to be done?  How is it chunked?  What’s the ordering?  How is it sequenced?  Who does what?  And we acted then as a scrum team in two-week increments.  We did our work.  And we actually – so 10 weeks in advance of launching SAFe we planned to launch ourselves.  So we were – that’s how we kind of created the critical mass or momentum to get out the door.

BILL YATES:  You mentioned the tool with Agile Central.  Are there other tools that were particularly helpful for the team in terms – especially with the remote access that some folks had in terms of communicating?

TIM KELLY:  Yes.  So we used a – the social knowledge tool I mentioned is basically – it’s not a SharePoint approach.  And anybody who’s lived in the Windows world – now, SharePoint has its value, and we use that a lot.  But a social knowledge tool, a Wikipedia of kinds, some tool that would allow you to enable free permissions and access in a single location that allows the constant population of information and social consumption of information quickly.  So I do think, especially with distributed teams, it is crucially important to use a social knowledge applications that doesn’t inhibit or limit teams from a, “Oh, I have to log in, and you didn’t give me permissions yet,” which are all simply cycle-time delays, and my ability to consume or add more value to whatever is in process.


TIM KELLY:  So, key part.

ANDY CROWE:  Tim, I’ve got a question for you.  I’m wondering, first of all, setting this question up, is McKesson now 100 percent Agile?

TIM KELLY:  No.  Great question.  They’re not.  Business units can vary in their approach.  And there is a centralized group that we partner with, within McKesson and within the technology teams, called the R&D Effectiveness Group.  And they are espousing best practice values.  We partner with them a great deal.  We’re one of two of the business units that have launched SAFe.  And they certainly support that.  But it’s a very challenging effort to get a lot of teams in the same space.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, okay, so that raises an interesting question.  But I’ll just comment on that and say, you know what, it’s probably challenging for the PMO, as well, having groups that coexist, maybe some traditional waterfall and some Agile.  And figuring out how to measure that effectiveness can be tricky with almost inverted approaches.

TIM KELLY:  Absolutely.

ANDY CROWE:  So along those lines, you’re going into an organization that maybe does a little bit more waterfall.  And you’re now espousing sort of an Agile framework, which I’ll tell you this, I have talked to Agile practitioners who don’t want anything to do with a framework.  They want to basically be agile and adaptable and constantly focus on what works.  And now suddenly a framework puts structure in.  What obstacles did you encounter in trying to roll this out and trying to educate people on Agile value?

TIM KELLY:  It’s a great question, and spot-on for us because we had teams that both had no structure – some were pure waterfall, some were slightly Agile, and some were more mature Agile, if I could use those words.  And so we often chuckle about what does it mean to be agile?  And I’m sure that’s a broad topic of conversation.  We created a short knowledge article on what it meant to be agile.  And so there were a couple of must-haves that we thought meant this was agile.  And so what we wanted to do was to dispel the belief that there needed to be this onerous framework that would weigh you down and prevent you from leveraging the value propositions that lean Agile brings to the table.  And so they were things like recording work, creating a backlog in an electronic tool.  So you need to do that.

Why do we do that versus a spreadsheet?  Because you can share knowledge, and you can drag, drop, prioritize and rank, and add value.  Within SAFe there’s something called Weighted Shortest Job First, which is a very lean approach towards prioritization, and you can use a tool to do that.  We said we wanted to task.  We did go to the extent that we said we wanted to both estimate our work in points, and we wanted to elaborate those stories into tasks, as well.  Which many Agile participants say that can be too much.

We did allow some teams, however, to become Scrumban, meaning that much lighter weight, purer form of the Toyota-esque, can I pull work as necessary, consume it, finish one thing, and move on to the next item.  We haven’t converted any of our teams, to be candid, into Scrumban.  We know some of them will be – that will be their ultimate outcome.  But we, through this transformation, we knew we wanted to crawl, walk, run.

And so we went back to everybody who is in these various stages:  “Let’s agree we’re going to adopt this lightweight, these must-haves that SAFe espouses.”  And we created the ground level, if you will, of what everybody needed to start from.  And so I do think it is important to take everybody back down to what’s the ground level that you’re going to launch from?  Otherwise, you have varying teams, programs, trains in the SAFe framework who could be doing different things and have different philosophies.

BILL YATES:  One of the things that I’m curious about, what I’m thinking about, the diversity of the project teams and the methods that were being used.  I mean, what a challenge.  So again, I want to ask the question about what kind of support did you have from leadership where you could really get people onboard?  Because I’m sure you had – you probably had it going both ways.  You probably had some naysayers going, “Tim, this is a huge mistake.  We’ve got to shut this down immediately.  We’re going to waste effort.  We’re not going to hit deadlines.”  And then you had others who were really for you and providing that support.  Take either one of those, those supporters or those detractors, if you will.

TIM KELLY:  Yeah.  Great thought.  And having launched in previous lives social knowledge as a pre-step to SAFe, many folks said the same thing.  You want to launch social knowledge, well, we’ve done that before.  We’ve tried that Wikipedia thing.  It didn’t work.  It helped shape a strategy.


TIM KELLY:  And we were fortunate to have our executive leadership team, forward-thinking guys.  When I said “SAFe,” they said, “That’s neat and cool.  I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, but if it can solve the problems that we have.”  And so to some degree there’s an investment in confidence in what you believe is going to work.  And so you do have to have a business case sense of will it fix the problem.

Second, our strategy was educate the leadership team.  Make sure they’re bought in.  They were.  But they couldn’t yet jump onboard and say, “SAFe for everybody.  This is the wisest thing.  We should go forward,” because they didn’t full understand it.  So ours was educate the leadership.  Grow from the ground up.  That was the strategy.  It was the same strategy we used when launching social knowledge, which was roll the snowball underneath at the execution layer of the line level team members who, when they see value, they will begin to adopt.  But if you’re telling people this has value, make it work, doesn’t change anybody’s behavior.  They have to acknowledge and understand the visible value.  And when they realize that, then the ball starts to roll and the snowball begins to get larger and larger and larger.

So ours was a top-down, bottom-up execution model.  You absolutely need the support of the executive leadership team.  And you do need a champion.  You mentioned earlier, Bill, who was driving this.  I am a fiery, passionate…

BILL YATES:  Agreed.

TIM KELLY:  …human.  I was wired to get us to the place I thought would create that.  And I think you need to have a crazy nut in the group who’s willing to be a little loony and drive forward.

BILL YATES:  Very good.

NICK WALKER:  But if you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

TIM KELLY:  I would probably invest more energy in education for the key leaders earlier.  That’s what I would do.  So, and that’s a great tie-in to the value of education, the value of certification.  We did certify.  And Scaled Agile has a certification model.  And we did certify leaders.  I also did not – I brought onboard a very talented young lady who had some experience.  So while I was a lone nut with a lot of passion, I was not yet fully immersed in SAFe.  And we brought on a very talented young lady who helped us move that forward.

BILL YATES:  So earlier education, finding those key leaders, making sure they’re onboard with you, that all makes sense.  And Nick, you can relate to the snowball analogy and building that.  You’re a weather guy.  You know the mighty momentum.

NICK WALKER:  But it’s summer.  I’m having trouble with that right now.

BILL YATES:  Got you.

NICK WALKER:  Tim, hey, thanks so much.  I wish we had more time to talk about, you know, pick your brain a little further.  But I appreciate this time that you’ve given us.  Thank you for joining us here on Manage This and giving us a glimpse into your world of project management.

All right.  We’ve got a present for you that we give all of our guests.  And so I want you to take home this Manage This coffee mug.  There it is in front of you.

TIM KELLY:  Incredible.  Awesome.

NICK WALKER:  Use it with pride every day.

TIM KELLY:  I absolutely will.  My pleasure.  Thank you for having me.

NICK WALKER:  Well, we always like to talk a little bit about what we’re reading.  So I want to find out what you’ve been reading, guys.  Andy?  Bill?  What’s on your nightstand these days?

ANDY CROWE:  You know what, Nick, we do this every podcast, and we always talk about what we’re reading.  How about you?  Are you reading anything right now?  Do you read?

NICK WALKER:  I do.  I do read.

ANDY CROWE:  I didn’t say “Can you read,” notice, I said “Do you read.”

NICK WALKER:  I am one of these guys who ends up having a lot of books open at once, different kinds of books.  And I kind of go here and go there.  But I just finished an amazing book by one of my favorite authors, and that’s David McCullough.  I love the way he puts history into perspective.  “The Path Between the Seas,” the story of the Panama Canal.

ANDY CROWE:  Oh, wow.

NICK WALKER:  It just – talk about a project management nightmare.  This was a project that took so many decades before it really came into fruition, and had so many little subprojects within bigger projects, some of them which didn’t even really seem to relate to some of the bigger projects.  They actually had to find out and eradicate yellow fever and malaria before they could get on with the bigger project.  They didn’t even know that there was a connection, but it was a huge portion of the project.  It’s a long read, but it’s worth it.  And it really shows, I think, the value of dreaming big and what can happen when you’re willing to be patient and do it right.

ANDY CROWE:  You know what, Nick, I’m a big fan of David McCullough, and he’s been an inspiration through the process he uses to write.  So I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m going to add it to my list now.

NICK WALKER:  Good, good, great one.  Andy, Bill, again, thanks so much.  Tim, I appreciate your perspective, and also filling us in on your lessons learned.  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on August 2nd for our next podcast.

Meanwhile, visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about project management or project management certification.  We’d love to get your perspective.  We’d love to be able to answer your questions.

That’s all for this episode.  Talk to you soon.  In the meantime, keep calm and Manage This.

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