LEAN lessons from a sunken, 17th-century Swedish warship

Vasa warship If there’s one lesson ComHem, a Swedish triple-play cable company has learnt from the Vasa, the Swedish warship that foundered and sank after sailing less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage in the summer of 1628, it’s that big projects are best implemented in small steps. The Vasa sank because it was top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Even though it was clear to the shipbuilders that there was a problem with its stability, the Vasa was still launched because of Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus’ impatience to see it join the Baltic fleet in the Thirty Years’ War and because his advisors lacked the courage to alert him to the ship’s structural problems.

Back to the present day and ComHem. With an old legacy system serving its 1.8 million connected houselholds (40% of Swedish households), the cable company knew the system’s inflexibility was posing a risk. The question, as Stefan Berg, the company’s CIO, told the cable summit at TM Forum’s Management World Americas, was how were they going to transform.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Berg said, and rather than try and transform in one big bang, ComHem decided to adopt an agile and LEAN software development approach, taking many small steps on the road to transformation, rather than attempting to do it all in one go, missing the target and, as in the Vasa’s case, going down.

There are seven key principles to LEAN (which first originated in the Toyota automobile Production System) : eliminate waste; amplify learning; decide as late as possible; deliver as fast as possible; empower the team; build integrity in, and see the whole.

And just as the Vasa sank because of a disconnect between the king and the shipbuilders, executive management trust is a vital component of any successful transformation project said Berg. “The team can’t be agile without the support of executive management. You need trust and transparency: we’ve proven to stakeholders that it works.”

According to Berg, adopting a LEAN and agile IT appraoch has led to a number of important success factions at ComHem: business is in command of the transformation, not IT; the company enjoys faster time to market, a can-do mentality, higher quality, 400% efficiency improvement, and a measured improvement in customer satisfaction over just six months.

In transformation, “less is more,” said Berg. “When you do smaller chunks of everything, it’s much easier to do things.”

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