Yorkshire Water revisits agile after 10-year break

Yorkshire Water uses a small but critical project to show senior management that agile software development can work

Yorkshire Water is using a small, but critical project, to show senior management that agile software development can work.

In a seminar at the Unicom Agile in the Public Sector conference in London, James Locker, senior IT project manager at Yorkshire Water, spoke about how the risk-adverse water company has reintroduced agile software development.

Locker says Yorkshire Water previously ran a pilot agile software development project 10 years ago, but it was deemed a failure. “It was judged as a failure and there were negative feelings about agile among senior management.”

Senior management felt agile represented a "get-out clause" for project managers, according to Locker. “Agile did not lend itself to accurate costing.”

A market research study conducted for the IT department about the business's perception of IT showed a number of failings and limitations in how IT operated under the traditional waterfall methodology for software projects. He says: “In the past we would engage customer at project concept stage and wouldn't see them again until 12 months later when we delivered the project, which was now out of date. We needed a more agile approach.”

Making the case for agility

Given its poor track record with management, he says IT could not simply go to the business and recommend agile. “There were very real internal barriers. Whatever we chose would have to integrate without project management processes,” he adds. Thinking beyond the pilot project, Locker says the team also needed to document the agile methodology. “We had to capture both things that went right and what went wrong if we wanted to make agile mainstream.”

The IT team identified a pilot in pollution prevention. "It was quite a small project but key to the business. We needed to cover our project development lifecycle covering concept to delivery and align with Yorkshire Water's project governance structure." 

To meet Yorkshire Water's project milestone review process, the project needed to correlate the benefits against project outlay.

He also surmised that attending a five day agile course would not be the right approach to help the team fully understand agile and how it could be integrated with the existing project management framework. Instead Yorkshire Water worked with business improvement consultancy, Lamri, to develop an approach based to agile software development on case studies and knowledge transfer that could be rolled out, licence-free across the company.

Agile methodology brings savings

The result has been considerable savings in time and costs. “We were able to deliver functionality six months earlier with 30% less cost than we budgeted for,” says Locker.

According to Locker, going agile has required a different approach to dealing with IT's internal customers: “For the last 25 years we have delivered projects using the waterfall methodology. Agile is another process. We wanted to integrate with internal customer and adapt to their needs. Never before have they worked in a project this way.”

As a project manager, he believes agile provides many touchpoints. “Personally the daily scrums have worked very well for me as they get everyone on board at a given day. On the project I became more of a project lead, ensuring the team has no obstacles."

Andrew Griffith, managing director of Lamri, adds that, for the Yorkshire Water project to succeed, the team needed to do quite a lot of work up front. “We needed to align agile with existing processes. This required 10 days of extra work on the IT architecture.”

Lamri helped Yorkshire Water to capture the approach in the Eclipse Process Framework, using the Eclipse Open Unified Process content. According to Lamri, this approach promotes re-use.

The company also worked from a risk list to drive planning. The theory behind this list is that in most failed projects, it is the last 20% that tend to be the root cause of failure - often the riskiest parts of the project. The risk list allows Yorkshire Water's IT team to work with business managers to identify these risky components up-front, prioritise them and develop the application functionality for these components first. This way, should the project be later canned, at least the intellectual property (IP) associated with the problem solving for the riskier functional elements of the project can be retained, and can be re-used again on subsequent project.

Locker added: "We needed to deliver the riskier things first, and work with business to understand what was the business' riskiest parts"

Yorkshire Water has taken a phased approach to scaling out agile software development. It has just completed the next phase, working with third-party suppliers. As the roll-out scales out, Locker believes agile will become another tool in the IT toolbox at Yorkshire Water, which project teams will be able to use, where appropriate, to develop applications.

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