Walmart’s Agile Journey: How We Scaled From 1 To 135 Agile Teams with Kamal Manglani, Sr. Mgr. & Agile Lead and Dawn Marshall, Sr. Product leader Health and Wellness, Walmart Labs GeC
by Lisa Rathjens
May 2014 Event
When most of us think of Agile engineering processes, we think of software development, Scrum, Kanban, and software sprints. But at Walmart Labs, Agile is far more than a software development methodology. It is a mindset, a cultural value of cross-functional teamwork, and a new way for an entire business to approach its day-to-day work.
At SVPMA’s May 7th meeting, Kamal and Dawn provided a glimpse into the inner workings at Walmart Labs, the R&D and technical innovation arm of the retail behemoth. Manglani, Sr. Manager and Agile Lead at Walmart Global ecommerce (GeC), joined Walmart Labs in January 2013. Manglani was joined by Dawn Marshall, Sr. Product Leader of Health and Wellness at GeC. Walmart Labs, based in San Bruno, has about 2500 employees spread across five continents. While operating somewhat independently of Walmart retail stores, Labs’ mission is to make sure Walmart retail business thrives and leverages technical innovation. There is a Walmart store within 20 miles of every U.S. resident, so innovations developed at Walmart Labs can have a profound influence on millions of people.
Manglani explained that there were two keys reasons that Labs moved to an Agile model: (1) it can reduce time-to-market, (2) it provides a change-management framework. For Manglani and for Walmart Labs, “Agile” equals “teamwork.” This connects directly to one of the mantras of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, who said “individuals don’t win, teams do.” According to Manglani, Agile is all about team collaboration and simplicity. When Walmart first began transitioning to Agile processes at Labs, they hired a number of Agile coaches (Manglani being one of them) to mentor the teams on: how to understand and implement Scrum and Kanban, promoting best practices for cross-teams communication, managing sprints, etc. Soon they realized, however, that there can be many variations in Agile implementations, and a danger for teams to be competing on “who does Agile best.” So Labs quickly moved from having multiple Agile coaches to focus on a single Agile approach. They looked across their divisions to identify the teams that were most successful in their Agile implementations, and encouraged other teams to emulate those successes. They set expectations for predictability, consistency, and requirements for a transparent and open fast feedback loop.
While at most businesses “Agile” is all about the engineering process, at Walmart Labs, “Agile” is 95% mindset and 5% process. And more interestingly, “Agile” is not confined to engineering. Agile processes have been implemented beyond engineering across the business units, into Finance, HR, Portfolio Management, Business Strategy, recognizing how all these businesses are interconnected and interdependent. This allows the entire organization to operate more nimbly and work together more effectively.
The measurable improvements that resulted from this cultural shift to Agile thinking include improved employee engagement, faster team release cycles, and crisper prioritization of products and initiatives. Manglani claimed that team outcomes have improved by more than 50% across the board. Walmart Labs has become “very agile about Agile,” which is evident in the regular self-assessments done by each team throughout the organization.
Manglani shared some of the best practices for emulating the Walmart Labs style of Agile. First, he recommends maintaining an internal portal (wiki or similar website) that is the home of your company’s Agile Community. This is the location where everything is stored and available, the central communication hub for disseminating information, sharing ideas, and raising awareness. He also recommends establishing an “Agile Steering Committee,” made up of the respected thought leaders within your organization who can lead, motivate, and provide course-correction when needed. Manglani also recommends looking at the physical space where your teams work and how people are located. Simply moving people from virtual to co-located teams can result in big efficiencies (e.g., moving UX designers or QA engineers to sit side-by-side with development engineers). Further, Manglani explained how their Agile teams are designed to be like mini-startups. Simplifying structure, creating a sense of urgency, reducing meetings (stand-ups) to 3 minutes, hosting demo days across a track or product (for all functional groups), are a few examples of driving accountability and enthusiasm deep into every function.
The biggest challenges on this journey, according to Manglani, are culture, communication, and environment. With focus and commitment, you can turn Agile into not just your day job, you can make it the foundation of your entire company culture.
Lisa Rathjens has spent the last 15+ years in the midst of the explosion in mobile computing, working at Palm and Motorola Mobility. She focuses on designing and building products and services that encourage and enable developers to build great that people love to use. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and http://www.linkedin.com/in/lrathjens.