Last Updated Jun 19, 2020 — DevOps Expert

Two DevOps and agile industry leaders Brett Piontek, Enterprise Lean/Agile Transformation Leader at Levi Strauss & Co. and industry luminary Gene Kim, DevOps Enthusiast, and author of “The Phoenix Project” from IT Revolution recently joined me for a webinar, along with our own expert from, Paul Peissner. This engaging video discussion paints a candid picture of how transformation happens at one of the world’s oldest and most trusted brands.

Brett’s leadership at Levi Strauss, has been focused on driving agile adoption and scaling agile practices across the company so they are well-equipped to continually improve customer satisfaction and adapt to changing market conditions. This initiative has been instrumental in the organization’s long-term growth and success and has helped them ensure business continuity and resolve complexities during COVID-19. Brett is SAFe certified and believes in the power of multiple agile teams to deliver business outcomes that matter.

We had a lively and enlightening conversation about the challenges of deriving customer value quickly by transforming software development with agile and DevOps. VersionOne, part of the platform, enabled much of the success of this transformation at Levi Strauss by providing a means for collaboration, visibility, and measurement to carry out their scaled agile initiatives.

Gene Kim Emphasizes Speed and a Great Architecture

Gene has walked side-by-side with many organizations through their DevOps transformations. Maybe you have seen him highlight these journeys at the annual DevOps Enterprise Summit. In his experience, the difference between high performing companies that can deliver value faster, resulting in happier teams and customers comes down to speed.

High performers tend to deploy multiple times per day, and when things go wrong, they can fix issues within one hour or less. Gene loves the quote, “Big will not beat small anymore, it will be the fast beating the slow.” The difference between the best and all the rest is how quickly you can move and adapt. “If there’s one thing to measure,” says Gene, “measure deployment lead time.”

Gene began this session by laying out what, in his experience, defines a great architecture.

Great architectures:

  • let us make changes without needing permission from anyone outside the team.
  • let us complete our work without fine-grained communication and coordination outside the team.
  • let us deploy and release on demand and independently.
  • let us test on demand without requiring an integrated environment.
  • let us perform deployments during normal business hours with negligible downtime.

The Journey of Levi Strauss & Co. and Brett’s Approach to Transformation

Levi Strauss is a household name. The company was founded in 1853 and reached the milestone of a 6 billion dollar valuation in 2017. Its products are sold in more than 50,000 retail locations in 110 countries. Levi’s is focused primarily on eCommerce, owned and operated retail, wholesale, supply chain and as of recently: data science and artificial intelligence to strengthen the enterprise and help build the future of the brand.

While there is certainly a digital transformation component to Levi’s business, they also are a physical goods company and Brett said, “digital goes hand and hand with physical product. We are proving agile is not just for IT. It helps IT and business work together as partners, not adversaries. They are two sides of the same coin.”

The main challenges Brett identified when scaling agile are:

  • Group silos exist, where there is no collaboration or visibility between them.
  • Competing agendas between teams make shared goals difficult.
  • Initiatives are department-driven, or department-budget-driven, rather than universal.
  • Management does not have enough visibility or control.
  • A lack of trust is present between individuals, teams, and management.
  • Various locations further perpetuate group siloes.

Focusing on the People is the Best Place to Start

Brett said when tackling all of these challenges, it starts with people. It is really about inspiring hearts and minds and getting people to look at things differently. The eCommerce team was like a start-up within the organization, implementing agile and Kanban and taking workflow and team management to the next level. Scaling this success across the organization has been a challenge that VersionOne has helped them overcome.

“Agile is not a methodology, it’s a way of life, a state of being,” said Brett. Rolling out DevOps at Levi’s has meant first aligning around values and principles and then building the technology stack to support that.

Gene agreed heartily and said, “We are getting to the point where everyone can do meaningful work, make decisions, and solve problems, throwing more human potential at the organization’s biggest challenges.” The question to ask is, how many people are really doing the thinking and solving problems as part of the daily work? Is it a few or is it everybody?

Letting Go of Old Ways of Thinking

The discussion next moved to some basic understandings that must be reached in order for teams to streamline processes and start measuring value.

1. Leadership is critical

While optimizing value stream management through an agile approach can take place as both a top-down and bottom-up approach, leadership is critical. Brett said that one of the company’s biggest success factors was that C-level leadership was very open to experimenting and realized the need for change.

2. It is a team effort

Brett said, “There are no heroes in agile. We have to step back and lead from behind.” So, while leadership does play a critical role, there must be an understanding that everyone plays a part. Gene pointed out that everyone, even those on the fringes, need to be contributing and working toward a common goal. As a cheerleader of Levi’s transformation, Paul, involved in accelerating the company’s success, saw that siloed teams realizing their value in contributing to the overall mission was key.

3. An emergent architecture is more beneficial

One of the roadblocks Brett has faced at Levi’s is the kind of traditional thinking that says, “I have to have everything figured out ahead of time,” rather than building as you go. You cannot always account for all possible scenarios in advance; sometimes you must start building momentum, allow for mistakes, and figure it out as you go.

4. Business and IT must come together

The gap between business and IT is well known in our industry. Differences in priority, goals, and budget can prohibit collaborative effort and inhibit quality and speed. I reminded everyone that operational or business value streams must align with development. That is ultimately the best way to ensure a customer-centric engineering culture.

How to Deliver Customer Value in a COVID19 World

Right now, with the challenges presented by COVID-19, business must make different decisions. This has been particularly true for Levi’s which relied heavily on retail locations performance. They have had to quickly pivot to championing the success of eCommerce and other opportunities to reach customers. Brett said time is of the essence, “We don’t have long windows of time to make these changes – we need to start accumulating value now.”

Brett said Levi leadership has been great about facing the reality of the situation and focusing on what is possible. The reason we need to better manage value streams is so that we can adapt to change and rapidly serve customer needs, which are a moving target particularly in times like these.

In the End, the People are the Most Important Success Factor

All webinar speakers agreed that change happens at an individual level: person by person, leader by leader, team to team. Paul reminded everyone that mapping the activity and current processes within the stream of work dictates how efficient you can be. It is not about iteratively getting things done; it is about collaborating and weaving disciplines together. “There’s a human relationship factor and inclusion matters,” said Brett. “You have to plant seeds all over and achieve a level of collective thinking and that’s something you build over time.”

He continued, “I’ve had to get over perfectionism … you’ve got to meet people where they are at. Find out what their needs are and what their aspirations are. The rest takes care of itself. It’s people first and the rest will follow.”

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