Agile Transformation

How Agilent's Global Software Team Doubled its Productivity

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In 2015, we undertook a lean/agile transformation journey at Agilent Technologies that roughly doubled our productivity over three years. Along the way, we learned about…

  • Teaching a large global team to do coordinated agile development
  • The leadership conditions that drive success
  • Working smoothly with outsourced vendors
  • Partnering with our IT department

We faced struggles with repairing field quality, delivering on a cadence, and building credibility and trust with customers and internal partners over time. (Papers on the TCGen website provide more detail on Agile principles, agile metrics, and good Agile practices.

Many people contributed to the success recounted here. Most are unnamed for the sake of brevity. I’ll use “we” to acknowledge those contributions.

Agile Transformations and its Five Foundations Steps to Scaled & Distributed Agile Development


Agilent Technologies is a multinational manufacturer of Instruments, software, and services for life sciences and healthcare industries. Headquartered in California, the company has offices across the globe. Sales are mainly B2B, and the company serves regulated markets, including Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare.

Agilent’s Software and Informatics Division (SID) is exclusively responsible for enterprise software products. Its lab data systems support a range of Agilent and third-party instruments and are designed to be deployed in various configurations. When I joined the company in late 2014, these were all on-premise.

Competitors Waters and Thermo had newer lab software that was a better fit for enterprise customers – most of the installed base. It offered broader instrument coverage, was easier to use, and was localized in China, with explosive growth in analytical test labs. Dominance in enterprise software for labs meant they could charge a toll to connect competitive instruments like ours. The toll forced discounts on the prices of our instruments. Low-end competitors eroded instrument prices from below.

As a result, there was very little pricing power at the low and middle markets, and discounts reached levels that would embarrass a consumer audio retailer. It was clear to our CEO and sales leaders that winning in software was vital to owning our destiny. There was strong C-level sponsorship for the company to reinvent its software offerings and its organizational capability to deliver software effectively.

Internal Challenges

In the winter of 2014, the employees of Agilent’s Software and Informatics Division were unhappy. They were struggling to deliver a modern replacement for their venerable but aging Chemstation and EZChrom software, and they had slipped their delivery date several times. They had persistent field quality problems with their legacy products, and the sales and support teams were skeptical of the SID team’s empathy for customers. Customers were annoyed and did not want to discuss new software: they saw quality issues and a history of inaction on past requests. Why spend more time talking if nothing will change?

I took the SID General Manager role in winter of 2014. My predecessor and his senior leaders intended to retire but were open to staying on to help me transition and hire their successors. The previous team had fought to establish an independent software division in a hardware company and get its portfolio and budgeting consolidated. The next step was to build credibility and trust. 

SID was a global team. We had two main sites in California and Germany, smaller ones elsewhere in Europe, and a significant outsourcing partner in Pune, India. At that time, about twenty scrum teams were working on new and legacy software – eight products in all. The division had its support team, but the lab software sales specialists reported to the company’s global sales leaders. I had been told to move the deployment team from within the division to the company’s services business unit. 

The division’s people were intelligent, experienced, and motivated but stumbling in execution. The team’s ideas about what mattered in the market were at odds with the views held by sales and support, especially concerning the importance of serving the large installed base. We also heard frustration from long-time customers, especially those who had bet their future on products that were no longer the focus of investment with the push to deliver new software. 

We served several markets. The largest were pharmaceuticals and the chemical and energy industries. The first was highly regulated, and required software that resisted tampering and supported regulatory audits. Chem/Energy needed software that was very easy to use and focused on fast cycle times and highly specialized analyses, sometimes at remote locations, conducted by technicians with minimal training.

We had underinvested in both of these constraints. As a company, we had a fragmented software portfolio with as many as fifty titles covering instruments in the lab rather than one (as our competitors did) for most of their routine tools, plus those of competitors. There was a great deal of catching up to do.

I resolved to take ninety days to observe, meet, and get to know people, begin to learn the business, visit customers, develop a strategy and plan, hire my leadership team, and write up our observations and a set of goals in cooperation with my boss. 

There had been a great deal of focus on silo financial performance in the prior administration. Mike McMullen, incoming CEO at the time I joined, asked us all to focus on our customers and to act like one company rather than a collection of silos. In a private meeting, I once asked Mike what I should do if doing right for a customer meant we had to take a P&L hit. He advised me to do right by the customer, track the expense, and that he would find a way to make us whole. That’s a real top-down commitment to customers.

As it happened, I never had to make a sacrifice large enough to call in that promise, but it was encouraging to know that our CEO was willing to back his talk with cash. 

Issues Facing the Agile Transformation

We found various issues holding the team back, including fear of failure, execution issues, and a lack of customer closeness.

Too Many Systems of Record

At the operational level, we had multiple systems for tracking work that didn’t talk to each other, so there was no easy way to see all the work requests and commitments in one place. The system that tracked support tickets was a rich source for defect reports and other customer information, but it did not connect to the systems of record used by the developers. Nor did the company’s strategy. Developers used at least two systems, and our outsource vendor used another for tracking work.

Too Many Agile Methodologies

Some dev teams used a Kanban approach, while others based their approach on Scrum or another agile framework. Each team had its agile approach: its idea of what “file” meant and how to do it. Estimates were not comparable from one team to another, so it was hard to understand how much work capacity was available or what could fit into a release. In small-scale agile development, the canonical unit of estimation is a “story point,” and industry dogma is that a story point is an arbitrary unit. This makes it impossible to estimate how much effort will be required to deliver a capability that spans agile teams or sprints. Portfolio-level thinking is a grind. 

Long Build Cycles

Builds required multiple transatlantic hops and took a week if they succeeded. Builds failed at least as often as they grew, and with the long cycle time, it could take even longer to track down the problem and fix it since developers had moved on to other work by the time the build failed. Tests were mainly manual, and because of the integration issues, they tended to happen late and, therefore, had a high surprise factor. The overall result was that the system wasn’t always integrated. It was hard to do demos to get stakeholder feedback for future iterations, and there were plenty of late-breaking surprises to contend with since integration tests happened late and there were fewer demos than desired. 

Quality Debt

Persistent field quality problems with legacy products meant the product development team members were constantly interrupted with fires to fight. Still, because of schedule pressure, the team made relatively cursory efforts to deal with them. Some serious field issues had aged two or three years without resolution. The result was frequent interruptions from negative customer feedback, an angry support team, and frustrated sales reps. This made it even harder for developers to meet other commitments. Nobody was happy.

Unsafe Culture

The team feared bringing lousy news to leaders, so they downplayed risk and uncertainty, and bad news often got revealed too late for leaders to marshal help. There was a tendency to expect the Quality team to ” get out of the way” rather than hold R&D accountable to high standards and drive improvement based on evidence. This was part of the reason for the persistent field quality issues. We had a significant schedule slip a month or two before the promised release date of the new software. It was an opportunity to see the results of an unsafe culture.

Emailing the Buck

The team overused email, and this caused decisions to be eddy even at the developer level. This seemed to be a company culture issue. It looked as if people felt their job was done when they passed an email request on to someone else rather than when the problem was solved.

Unclear Scope

We lacked clarity on the scope of the work. Stories were often confusing and could be more significant than a team could complete in a sprint. There was a perception that features and scope were more important than time to market. Quality and reliability tended to go begging. Our Product Owners had not coalesced into a guild or practice area, and story quality was not what it needed. At the Product level, there was a sense that “if we don’t have everything, we have nothing,” meaning nobody would buy our new software if it didn’t do everything the old software did. We would go on to prove this untrue, but it held us back by causing people to overemphasize scope early on.

Strong Opinions, Weak Evidence

There was much reliance on expert opinions and insufficient evidence to substantiate or refute them. Many employees had been in the market and with the company for decades and had earned PhDs in related fields. They had grown up as chemical analysis or life sciences specialists. Our customers were increasingly not specialists, and purchasing power at major accounts had shifted from scientists to procurement and IT departments. The entire organization reflected the market of two or three decades ago and was slow to change thinking to reflect these new conditions.

Software Development As an Afterthought

As a software business in a hardware company, we found that software was an afterthought in accounting models and other sources of internal evidence that worked well for hardware sales. Leads in our CRM system were tied to hardware SKUs rather than software unless the deal was software only, so we had no win/loss information other than anecdotes from sales reps. We could not know what software was attached to what hardware or where our installed base was. We could see sales by quarter, sales region, and product or product line, but that was about all. We needed data to understand our sales and our market independently.

Archaic Licensing System

We had underinvested in developing sources of evidence of our own, too. Our ancient licensing system was obsolete, coarse, and poorly instrumented. It required manual administration. The software could not control the feature mix based on the license. We also discovered that there were license leaks when we delivered upgrades. The choices the team made twenty years ago in the license system were still locked in, hampered the marketing team’s ability to pay or even think about new business models. We couldn’t see how our software was attached to other orders or vice versa. 

Agile Transformation Process

First Step: Build Trust and Credibility

We needed to build trust and credibility, so our first step was to improve our predictability – to deliver what we promised and get field quality issues under control. Knowing that we had to delay the launch of our new product, we decided to take the time to restructure and transform the way we worked with the expectation that this delay would pay off later.

Five Key Elements

In our shared conference room, I hung a handwritten poster emphasizing five critical points to remember as we changed how we worked. Predictability, Teamwork, Evidence, Simplicity, and Customer focus became the principles that drove our transformation. In our operating plan, we defined and expanded on these ideas. 

Predictability comprised three objectives. First, we did as we said we would or gave timely warnings if we were in trouble. Second, a clear way for stakeholders to request work from us, with a transparent decision-making process. Finally, we are meeting our customer commitments. An analogy is being careful about what promises we make. It’s OK to say “no” for a good reason.

Less Email, More Communication

Observing AAgilent’s tendency to overuse email, we asked people to converse directly in person or via audio or video calls whenever possible to speed up decisions and results. It looked like part of the silo culture led people to think in terms of checking off their to-do lists rather than solving problems. We needed to get our people to own and solve their problems, which was a cultural shift.

Creating an Evidence-based Culture

We were a company of very bright people who had grown up in labs like our customers, so there were many strong opinions, but often those opinions were out of date or not informed by a broad perspective on the market. We had to get people to develop and rely on evidence, recognize conflicting opinions, and ask for proof to make well-informed decisions. This helped take egos out of discussions and gave more agency to people who had not had as much customer contact.

Relying on evidence wherever possible also created the psychological safety the team needed to emerge from its conflict-averse prior culture. We leaders also did our best to model openness and show the team that speaking up was encouraged, that good ideas could come from anywhere, and that bad news delivered on time was good.

Putting Customer Needs – Not Silos – First

The team tolerated or embraced complexity rather than looking for ways to simplify things for ourselves and our customers. The company had a definite tendency for divisions and departments to act independently to optimize their perceived interests even when it inconvenienced customers. This spilled over into product design: it was a significant win for the company to adopt a common industrial strategy for the power switch across all instruments.

Our software reflected this – it was highly flexible and capable for specialists but not easy to use for enterprise customers who increasingly staffed their labs with less expensive techs and needed a simple and common way to run most of their lab workflows. The market was moving rapidly toward labs staffed this way, with supervisory roles reserved for specialists. We needed to catch up.

Customer focus means putting customer interests ahead of parochial ones and getting out of the building to understand more deeply who our customers are and how they work with products like ours. Customer collaborations eventually became a source of growth and learning for us.

Agile Adoption Takes Shape

One Place to Track Work

After setting out these principles, we created a single place to track our work. We had too many systems of record and multiple approaches to development in our cross-functional teams. From a combination of Kanban and “”gile in name””approaches, we decided to converge on doing Scrum one way across all groups. We engaged consultants and agile coaches from TCGen and Cprime to help us develop a common practice. We included our outsourced teams in this training and expected these teams to buy into our tools and new processes, not something else.

We initially chose two-week sprints and a relatively long nine-month release cycle and trained our teams similarly. We migrated all of our work into Jira and Confluence and began to discuss connecting our support ticket system so that they could be tracked to defects. This is a short description of a heroic effort on the part of the team at SID and our IT partners. Having one approach and tracking system meant one dashboard for all that work. It enabled a consistent review format from program to program.

Regulations and Validation

Our industry began transitioning to cloud computing when I joined Agilent. Lab informatics software was mission-critical for production in most of our ccustomers’labs, and they were very cautious about making changes that might disrupt work. Lab and IT managers had to do a great deal of testing and documentation when they deployed an upgrade but still wanted bugs fixed quickly with no extra baggage to test.

We distinguished between releases containing only bug fixes and releases containing new features and capabilities (Feature Releases, which were numbered from FR-1 onward). Bug fix releases could be tested at a much lower effort as long as customers trusted us to have good release discipline. We chose a nine-month feature release cycle initially as much because of our own build and test cycle times as the market necessities of on-premise software. Later, we found ways to shorten those cycles dramatically, but the market still needed what it needed. 

Program Office

We set up a program office tasked with improving our business processes and leading interactions with many stakeholders in other divisions – the beginning of portfolio management. Our program director led monthly Portfolio Management meetings to create a transparent way of requesting work from us, negotiating, and communicating decisions. We encouraged the senior leaders of other divisions to participate and help develop clear priorities. It wwasn’teasy! 

The program team also led our large Sprint Zero meetings and the planning sessions that led up to each Sprint Zero, kicking off the feature release cycle. One of the critical roles of the program office was to work with stakeholders to get a ranked feature list far enough ahead of each Sprint Zero that there was time to negotiate a scope that would fit in our available capacity. This involved much back and forth as initial estimates often exceeded our power by a factor of three! Over time, the team got better at planning and estimating – only up to the “”ill line””– to avoid wasting time planning things that had no chance of fitting in the release.

Our Program Director attended a SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) certification program late in our transformation to see if we could pick up any ideas for further improvement at the portfolio level. He concluded that we had developed an equivalent approach.

Project to Product Mindset

Culturally, our team and company were in a project mindset. A new release effort started with the inbound marketing team defining what they considered a minimum scope necessary for the attempt to make a return that the company considered essential to justify the investment.

Because releases were frequently delayed – in part because of the insistence on fixed scope – marketers often were unsure when they would get another chance to get a capability to market. As a result, they tended to ask for everything when they had the opportunity. This helped perpetuate a vicious cycle of underestimation and slips. As GM, one of the hardest things I had to do was drive the team toward putting quality and cadence ahead of scope. 

It was difficult for the team, used to older ways of doing project management, to come to terms with the idea that we would sacrifice scope to hit a release cadence or, even more improbably, ask the developers to stop planned work and help customers resolve issues with our software. It was a hard adjustment to an agile mindset with the assumptions of. Agile project management.

As it happened, exposing developers and our leaders to hot customer situations, sometimes by flying teams to customer sites, was a revelation for many. They came back with enthusiasm and a vastly improved first-hand understanding of why our products mattered and how they were used in real life. Spreading customer insight into the development team simplified story writing and led to better design decisions, and more give and take between developers and product owners. 

My senior leaders and I had to convince the team that scope must come after Quality and Cadence in the canonical priority development list. In hindsight, this was one of our biggest struggles of change leadership, and it was likely that teams would quickly revert to prior practice without ongoing leadership commitment. 

If you knew scope might get ejected late in a release, you would do some things differently. A first change would be to attempt to complete as much as possible as early as possible in the release. The more scope is complete, the less risk there is of having partially finished work at the end. So rather than doing fifty things in parallel for the whole release cycle, a good adaptation might be to focus and finish ten items at a time, five times over. Knowing that some scope might have to be ejected, iit’salso a good idea to have work in progress that is always usable and tested so that partial work can be released.

This is a core idea of agile development, but teams may fail to do it unless they have excellent habits. One way of enforcing these agile principles and practices is to have a frequent and regular demo cadence and to require that stories pass testing before they are considered done. This is part of good “”efinition of Done””hygiene for an agile organization.

Customer Commitment Focus

One immediately helpful change was creating a marketing role responsible for meeting customer commitments, which included resolving defects promptly. I asked the leadership team to model faithfulness to quality by attending a weekly conference to direct action on critical issues. Our incumbent quality leader took the role and flourished in it. I had the opportunity to promote another quality leader who had not been immersed in the “”et out of the way””culture but was passionate about building a forceful quality team and driving improvement.

We set a goal to release a patch for 80% of severe or critical field defects within six weeks to formalize our commitment and measure progress. As it turned out, we were so successful that we had to change our metrics. There were so few outstanding field defects after the first couple of releases that it was hard to meet our target.

Paying Down Quality Debt

We asked one of our engineering directors to lead a program to work down our quality debt of aging field defects in legacy products. We dedicated a team of developers to this and asked them to visit customer sites to gather the information needed to identify the root causes from the bottom up. We had developers and managers returning from field visits as heroes for our customers, with new insight to bring to their work. We won in more ways than working down the quality debt.

Having developers with a deeper understanding of customers made the work of product owners simpler, too. The net result of our efforts to pay down quality debt was renewed credibility with key accounts and our sales and support people. This led directly to growth in upgrades, reduced the time our team spent fighting fires, and increased productivity.

Product Life Cycle

Our quality director made changes to our product lifecycle that specified how our agile development process fit into the traditional gated process that was standard at the company, which was necessary for us to meet our regulatory commitments to our customers. We found a relatively simple way to achieve this, allowing us to do periodic releases without excessive documentation.

Investment in Architecture

We found that our legacy products had outgrown their designs and toolchains. We often had products stuck on old versions of compilers or essential libraries because of underinvestment in architecture and DevOps. We saw this issue beginning to develop in our new product as well. There were ad hoc decisions intended to get the product to market that had led to performance issues or made it more difficult to adapt our learning about the market once we launched. To correct this, we decided to create an architecture group.

We intended to signal our commitment to being deliberate about architecture in our products, to develop a culture around architecture, and to establish a clear architectural vision for our products that was tied clearly to the direction of our markets. We wrote architectural reviews into our Definition of Done — effectively giving the architects the power to shape releases if needed.

Over time, the architects developed what we came to call our target architecture and a transformation roadmap to achieve it. We allocated a significant fraction of our development capacity in each release to implementing capabilities that made progress toward our target architecture.

Unbreaking the Build

Initially, we were lucky to get one build done per week. Our build master installed traffic lights over each scrum tteam’swork area to show where the build had broken. If your build passed successfully, your light would be green. If you broke the build, everyone, especially scrum masters, could see that red light. It was amazing how quickly broken builds got resolved after that. We still had a long build cycle, but overall, we moved to several bodies per week. 

Over time, we set up a devops team and asked them to cut build cycle time to have a build plus smoke test take no longer than a coffee break. We also invested in improving our automated test coverage at multiple levels – unit, functional, and integration testing. The QA team used low-code test development tools for UI and integration level testing, and our developers did the lower-level work. The DevOps team devised ways to automate the creation and loading of virtual machines to perform load testing. They brought test coverage up and cycle time down to about thirty minutes throughout a couple of years.

Product Owners and Story Quality

Product Owner is the most challenging job title in agile development. A PO must be insightful about the end use of the product and its domain while also being able to translate requirements into explicit, concise stories that developers understand and estimate. They must work well with both developers and marketers. They must be good negotiators and have enough grasp of business to be able to identify value and work with evidence to justify their backlog rank decisions. We did not have a strong PO community initially. Story quality and customer connection both needed work. To address this, we organized POs under a single leader globally and worked to create a culture around product ownership practices and continuous improvement.

Developing a Capacity Model

In our first feature release (FR-1), we saw that the amount of work requested of us was at least three times what we could complete in the release. Still, it took much estimation effort from our most senior technical people and POs to realize that. Part of the problem was that we did not have a way to estimate how much capacity was available to assign to new requests. As a result, we wasted precious effort assessing work that had no chance of fitting in the release and set incorrect expectations about what could be accomplished. I asked our Program Director to lead the development of a capacity model so that we could better estimate those features that would actually fit next time. 

We had a single system for tracking work and work requests. We decided to buck the current teaching in agile development and ask all of our teams to use a reproducible unit of work so that we could compare estimates and add them up.

We defined a story point as the work a developer could accomplish in a day. From this foundation, we created a relatively simple model that gave us a reasonable estimate of the capacity to deliver stories to market and an estimate of where the rest of our power was going. Initially, we found only about 30% of our total available for discretionary work. The remainder was to address quality issues, both field defects and defects found in manual testing, to buffer inaccurate estimates, to compensate for time lost to attrition and personal emergencies, and to maintain legacy products (quality issues again mostly).

This was alarming but also an indication of an opportunity to improve our productivity significantly for no extra cost by addressing some of the issues. The capacity model not only made these opportunities visible but it also quantified improvement as we managed them. We got our “”ayload””capacity up to about 65% throughout the subsequent four releases by addressing many of these issues, starting with field quality.

Faster Cycle Time

As we improved our practices, we wanted to reduce the planning burden and emotional toll of long release cycles. The emotional toll resulted from the understanding that if some requests were not included in the next release, it would be a whole release cycle before we made another decision and two cycles at best before that feature might become available. We thought that if we could get a release cycle down to a lean three months (an eternity by SaaS standards), we could relieve this burden and significantly reduce the planning overhead.

To do this efficiently, we had to reduce overhead in our releases. This included the number of sprints reserved for final testing once the code was frozen. We decided to divide our objective into two sub-goals: reduce the time required to run a build and smoke test cycle and improve our confidence that code that passed the smoke test would integrate well with the rest of the system. 

Over time, the DevOps team reduced the cycle to forty minutes – about a hundredfold improvement over the initial state, while growing smoke test coverage. They achieved this mainly by profiling the build and relieving bottlenecks, using containers to automate the deployment of virtual test configurations to remove manual effort from test configuration, and making good choices about what work to do in the quick build and what could be done less frequently.

Results of a Successful Agile Transformation

By FR-6, we achieved 65% payload thanks to improvements in field quality, reduced outsource turnover, and improved developer productivity from more completed work and less planning waste. We continued to scale the team globally: where we had started with two large employee sites and one sizeable outsourced vendor, we entered FR-6 with a third large employee site and two more outsourced vendors to add scale and reach.

Credibility and Trust with Internal Partners

Credibility and trust were critical to gaining cooperation from our internal partners. Because of our changes, we became the clock that our partner divisions used to time their own releases. Because we were open to good ideas from anywhere and seemed to know what we were doing, we built an outstanding team in Australia to partner with the division there, and the GM of that division made financial sacrifices to fund it.

Credibility, Trust, and Customer Satisfaction

Credibility and trust became a competitive advantage as well. Our customers trusted our ability to deliver what we said we would and mistrusted our competitors on the same scale. They often treated a feature planned for our next release as if it already existed to make purchase decisions. This potent competitive weapon directly resulted from our emphasis on a predictable cadence of high-quality releases. 

Measurable Business Growth

We realized direct business benefits from our transformative efforts. OpenLab CDS achieved 65% compound annual growth over the five years from initial release to FR6. It was one of the most successful product launches in company history. These achievements happened because of the dedication and effort of many people at Agilent, especially in SID. They are a testament to the successful implementation of agile processes and working methods.

It was an honor to have had the opportunity to lead during this time and a source of lasting satisfaction to me that we achieved great business results by doing well for our customers. 

John Sadler

John Sadler

Principal, TCGen Inc.

John Sadler focuses on helping executive leaders create the conditions for their teams to deliver value more rapidly to market, especially when software is involved. Professional experience in multiple markets, including medical devices, life sciences, internet, and consumer products, as well as proficiency in business strategy and multiple technical disciplines allow John to bridge skill silos to get results.

John was most recently VP/GM of the enterprise software division of Agilent Technologies. In that role he sponsored and led a delivery turnaround resulting in annual revenue growth over 2X market, consistent on-time release cadence with outstanding field quality, a thriving acquisition growing at 35%, and a clear and customer-validated digital lab strategy embraced across the company. Critical to this success was the development and effective use of scaled agile practices across multiple sites globally, including outsource partners, along with a strong culture of continuous improvement.

John earned his MS in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University’s Design Division and his BS in Mechanical Engineering at MIT focusing on feedback control systems. He is an inventor on over 20 patent families, and is the author of Ficl, a widely adopted open source software package for embedded systems scripting.