Can risk management prevent IT failures?

Following the high-profile IT failure at British bank TSB - could delivery capability risk management help avoid failed IT launches?
Picture of Charlie Ponsonby

Charlie Ponsonby

Co-founder & CEO, Plandek

Following the high-profile IT failure at British bank TSB – could delivery capability risk management help avoid failed IT launches?

 

Introduction

The UK bank TSB migrated to a new IT platform in April 2018, following its acquisition by Sabadell in 2015.  The new platform was launched in a “big bang” on 20-22 April 2018 when c5m customers were transferred to the new platform.  Customers immediately experienced problems accessing their online and mobile banking services, and TSB received 33,000 complaints within ten days, with the platform being described as “unstable and almost unusable” post-launch.  The platform was subsequently improved over time, but TSB suffered very significant reputational and commercial damage.

The legal firm Slaughter and May was commissioned to investigate the causes of the failure and published their findings in October 2019.  They concluded that:

  • The new platform was not ready to support TSB’s 5m customers when it launched
  • SABIS (who built and hosted the platform) was not ready to operate the new platform at launch.


This was despite:

  • There are seemingly robust programme management disciplines in place and
  • There is seemingly strong governance and risk management with a “three-line defence” of the Programme team, the Risk Oversight team, and Internal Audit all involved in risk management.


So why did the £325m project fail to deliver immediately post-launch?  And could a better understanding of the development capability (and its hidden risk) have helped?

 

Slaughter and May’s diagnostic – a focus on programme management failure

The Slaughter and May report shows that TSB adopted a fairly traditional “waterfall” software delivery methodology, with the project estimated and planned upfront, with defined milestones building towards a big-bang migration.

The migration date was originally intended for Nov 2017 before being rescheduled to April 2018.  However, both times, the planning process was described as “right to left” rather than “left to right” – i.e., TSB started with the desired end date and used this as the key INPUT into the planning process.  Whereas a “left to right process” would produce an end date as an OUTPUT of the planning process.

The net effect of this “right to left” approach appears to be that the time planned was inadequate, and the project was rushed (so critical load testing, for example, was rushed). As such, it is characterised as a failure of programme management approach and execution.

 

Understanding delivery capability risk in complex IT programme management

The overriding theme of Slaughter and May’s diagnostic seems to be that TSB was rushing towards an unachievable go-live date.  There was huge stress on the software delivery team, and corners were cut as time ran out – and the net result was a disastrous go-live.

Figure 1. Example end-to-end software delivery metrics that determine delivery (capability) risk
Figure 1. An example of end-to-end software delivery metrics that determine delivery (capability) risk

Understanding delivery capability risk in complex IT programme management. The overriding theme of Slaughter and May’s diagnostic seems to be that TSB was rushing towards an unachievable go-live date. There was a huge stress on the software delivery team, and corners were cut as time ran out – and the net result was a disastrous go-live. So, two critical questions are:

  • Can you better identify and measure stress and hidden risks within software delivery teams? And related to this question:
  • Are there warning signals in critical metrics that show that teams are under stress and unlikely to deliver on time?


I believe the answer to both questions is an emphatic “yes” (if you have the tools to collect and analyse the relevant metrics).

Plandek is such a tool.  It provides a complete set of end-to-end delivery metrics and analytics to understand and mitigate software delivery capability risk.

It works by mining data from toolsets used by delivery teams (such as Jira, Git, CI/CD tools and Slack) to surface critical metrics to optimise software delivery forecasting, risk management and capability improvement.

As such, it creates a balanced set of metrics that determine delivery capability risk, using both quant data from the underlying tools sets such as Jira, Git, etc – but also from the engineers themselves via constant polling through Slack or other collaboration hubs.

Figure 2. Example end-to-end software delivery metrics that determine delivery (capability) risk
Figure 2. An example of end-to-end software delivery metrics that determine delivery (capability) risk

This balanced scorecard of capability risk metrics adds a new dimension to overall programme risk management.

As Figure 1 shows, these metrics are principally designed for use in an Agile delivery context (with concepts of Cycle Times, Sprint Completion, etc). Still, many can also be applied in a hybrid “Scrumfall” context (often adopted by larger organisations to deliver major projects).

For example:

  • Metrics relating to backlog health are clearly key in any context (and reveal hidden risks);
  • real-time understanding of engineer morale and engineer feedback, as regards the delivery process, are also critical leading indicators of (hidden) delivery risk, and so too are;
  • changes in time spent (and the efficiency of) fixing bugs and technical debt.


These are all “under the bonnet” metrics that, when viewed together, give the experienced Delivery Manager a view on the health of the delivery “engine” – is it firing on all cylinders or running on empty…?

 

Applying delivery capability risk to overall project risk management frameworks

In the case of TSB, Slaughter and May noted “material limitations in the tracking and monitoring of the programme’s progress”.  The project seemed to have relied on quite traditional programme management techniques to map the various workstreams and understand interdependencies and the critical path.

These techniques create well-organised Gantt charts showing the theoretical progress of the project relative to the planned timeframe.  However, these techniques cannot effectively track the health of the underlying technology delivery capability.

i.e. the Gantt chart may show that we just hit a key milestone, but understanding the health/stress of the underlying delivery team may paint a very different picture.  It may show that this was achieved in an unsustainable way (low morale, declining process efficiency, increasing technical debt, etc) – hence, the team is unlikely to hit the next milestone.

This is why understanding delivery capability risk (i.e., understanding the health of the underlying delivery “engine”) can be a vital extra dimension in complex IT programme management.

Would it save companies such as TSB from such costly mistakes?  I think it is unlikely in the case of TSB, as their problems seem to have stemmed from unrealistic “right to left” planning, placing a near-impossible burden on the IT team to deliver.

That said, it may have identified (and clearly quantified) the stress in TSB’s delivery capability, which in turn would have raised warning flags to the Risk Oversight and Internal Audit committees.  As such, it may have put more doubt in the minds of those making the key decisions earlier in the process.  So perhaps it might just have saved TSB from a costly mistake…

About Plandek

Plandek is an intelligent analytics and performance platform to help software delivery teams deliver valuable software faster and more predictably.

Plandek enables technology teams to track and drive their improvement and share understandable KPIs with stakeholders interested in accelerating value creation/ improving delivery efficiency.

Plandek works by mining data from delivery teams’ toolsets (such as issue tracking, code repos and CI/CD tools) to provide actionable and intelligent insight across the end-to-end software delivery process.

Plandek is recognised as a top global vendor in the DevOps Value Stream Management space by Gartner and Forrester and is used by private and public organisations globally to optimise their technology delivery and accelerate R&D ROI.

For more information, please visit www.plandek.com

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