With a range of insurance, investments and superannuation products, MLC Life Insurance knows a thing or two about the need for a slow, measured approach, which makes the introduction of agile ways of working into its business intelligence division even more remarkable.
While Agile is more commonly seen as an approach that fits software development, it was actually the Actuarial Information (AI) team who chose to spearhead its introduction into the company.
The case for agile ways of working
This team is responsible for the Insurance Knowledge Warehouse (IKW), which holds a vast and detailed amount of sales, claims and performance data. And it’s through the IKW that the team is required to support the reporting requirements of business units across the organisation.
The AI team had a history of producing quality reporting, but not necessarily a high volume of it.
Of late, the team was facing an increasing list of requests from the business, and was struggling to support it in a timely and effective manner.
They had also identified distinct silos of experience and skills within the team, meaning a number of single point dependencies that further slowed down productivity.
“As a group we felt the need to showcase exactly what we as a team were capable of producing, and find a way to deliver more to the business, more frequently.”
Getting started with Agile
Rather than simply add additional resources to the team, MLC Life Insurance decided to invest in process improvements, centred around a new Agile planning framework.
After an initial attempt to introduce Agile on their own, they engaged an agile coach to work with the team and provide best practice advice and ongoing coaching. The company chose to partner with one of the most experienced agile consultancies in Australia, Elabor8.
“We knew that bringing in a quality coach to provide on-the-job coaching and help drive the adoption of new ways of working would be essential.”
With Elabor8’s assistance, the team started by identifying all items that were sitting with individuals and putting them into a backlog. Part of this implementation process was defining a meaningful way of prioritising work, with the input of both product and business owners.
“This helped us decide not only what to focus on first, but it also provided greater visibility across the business of how these decisions were being made.”
A pragmatic approach to Agile adoption
Scrum and Kanban
Elabor8 helped implement a Scrum team structure with 2-week sprint cycles, supported by Kanban boards and daily stand-ups to visualise work and bottlenecks.
“The short sprints give us short term goals which are very motivating. It allows us to feel satisfaction about more of our achievements.”
While Agile implies a degree of speed, in practice it wasn’t just a focus on the quick turnaround of jobs, and then onto the next. Each 2-week sprint included retrospective sessions to review, assess and adjust ways of working, as well as a planning session to determine what would be worked on next.
Slowing down to speed up
While the focus on ‘slowing down, to speed up’ seems counterintuitive, “we now have better direction — tasks are broken down into small pieces which gives more explicit instruction.”
Pairing to build capability and share knowledge
Elabor8 also encouraged the pairing of team members to reinforce cross-skilling. “More challenging tasks are not just given to the senior team members but shared with the junior members — which gives them a big sense of achievement.”
Under Elabor8’s guidance, the team recognised that it was critical that stakeholders be taken on the journey. “For instance, we took the time to explain the new ways of working and the benefits, and involved them in prioritising their requests.”
Taking stakeholders on the Agile journey
They also needed to educate stakeholders, who were no longer able to directly approach team members with tasks, or get an exact delivery timeframe for items that are in backlog.
To mitigate this, they introduced regular check-ins with customers. This meant if requirements changed or the brief was incorrect, they could adjust rapidly, and better manage expectations. “It is a lot more transparent and clear about what we are now doing — and more people can appreciate what we do.”
Since the introduction of Agile in the AI team, the business has benefited from a significant productivity uplift, with the team producing two to three times more output than before.
“I have been able to contribute more, have greater opportunity to work on varied tasks and to show more initiative in picking the next task off the top of the list, as opposed to being handed a pre-selected piece of work.”
More importantly, as the business priorities are understood and agreed upfront, there’s been a big reduction in ad-hoc requests and distractions, which means the team have been able to focus on the most critical areas of delivery.
The focus on pairing and cross-skilling has also led to dramatic increases in individual team member’s capabilities. “My learning has been fast tracked through Agile. I think it could have taken one to two years to get to the experience level that I’ve got to within the past four months.”
But the big win has been the uplift in team spirit and engagement. “Moving to Agile has shifted away from individual glory to team glory, which is very satisfying.”
After going through the process of introducing Agile, the team stresses the importance of not being too rigid about the approach. “We haven’t stuck to a formula, rather we have ended up with an adaptation of Scrum and Kanban that continues to evolve.”