There is a place in Tokyo that is full of energy and activity, with many people moving around with purpose, some in groups, some on their own. Early morning appears to be one of the busiest times as people walk hurriedly with their coffee to get to work. Despite the activity, the scene is organised, the movement of people smooth as everyone passes one-another with a practised, calm, agility. I could be talking about the Shibuya Crossing, said to be the busiest road intersection in the world, with up to 1000 people crossing in all directions at peak times and a stone’s throw from Shibuya station, one of, if not, the busiest station on the planet. However, I am in fact describing one of the offices of KDDI, one of Asia’s largest telecommunications providers a few kilometres away from Shibuya.
We had been invited to the KDDI office for a tour that had been organised for the visit of Avi Schneier, VP of training and operations, and JJ Sutherland, CEO, of Scrum, Inc. who KDDI had partnered with for their Scrum adoption with local support from ESM, Inc.
KDDI had seen that the innovators – from and inspired by Silicon Valley – were coming. There had been very little investment in R&D and innovation in Japan in recent decades, and KDDI saw that they too had to change. KDDI began their Agile journey in 2013, part of a strategy to change the reliance on 3rd party vendors and move development in-house, starting small with 1 pilot team and building up from there. They recognised that they needed to create empowered, autonomous teams with management’s role as facilitators and enablers, inverting the traditional hierarchical pyramid. The collaboration with Scrum Inc. began at the start of 2017. Now a year and a half later, the partnership is strong, with Scrum Inc. paying regular visits to the KDDI Tokyo offices to see how things are going and to continue supporting them, the visit from Avi and JJ the latest example of this. With an employee base of over 35,000 people, KDDI have since become one of the main examples in Japan of rolling out and scaling Scrum in a large company.
We didn’t know where to begin with our questions as we chatted with Yoshinobu, KDDI development manager, while regularly stepping out of the way of people passing by. We didn’t really need to worry about asking questions though, we were getting a good idea of what was happening just by being there. We were shown a number of different offices, and throughout them all we could barely see any wall space that was not used for the display of Scrum Boards, Burndown charts or other information. Rolling whiteboards were dotted around, with more post-its on very neatly made boards. The whole place was one giant information radiator, with everything displayed with the meticulous tidiness so typical of Japan; swim lanes drawn perfectly level and post-it notes stuck up in neat rows for example.
It wasn’t just the high level of transparency that impressed us, but also what we saw people doing. One team was gathered around a specially designed area where there were sofas and a big prominent screen. They were mob programming, where the entire team, Product Owner and all, were collaborating together as one on a feature, a technique heavily used at KDDI. A few metres away, another team were similarly gathered, this team were in Sprint Planning. Around the other side of some rolling white boards, another team were gathered around another screen, the technology utilised to dial in remote team members for the Daily Scrum. KDDI have 26 teams in all, just 3 of which have offshore team members, a mark of how far they have come to create in-house capability.
Avi told us about some of the other changes that had occurred over the last year and a half. He pointed out one board that had three columns with headings ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’, saying that when he first arrived the board had 14 columns on it, a hint perhaps of the waterfall process that KDDI were trying to get away from. Avi told us about another breakthrough, product managers that had moved from their previous offices to sit in the same room as the development teams, the greater face-to-face communication between business people and developers real progress for a company the size of KDDI that had traditional company structures historically. This product management group sit together with the Chief Product Owner, a gigantic user story roadmap on the wall by their desks. They were working with 3 Scrum teams on a single product using practices from Scrum, Inc’s Scrum@Scale framework. For example, Scrum of Scrums and MetaScrums (where a group of Product Owners align the teams’ priorities) help to coordinate, communicate and bubble up impediments to the Executive Action Team, a group with the empowerment to remove impediments that cannot be removed by the Scrum of Scrums group. There was no need for inspirational posters on the walls for these teams; there is little that can be more motivating than seeing how your product is performing, and electronic screens in the office were giving feedback on the state of their app in production in real-time.
As well as their work supporting a range of services for network, mobile and cloud for their corporate customers, KDDI support ICT solutions and have been contributing to the establishment of an Internet of Things environment. They are also interested in partnering with, and co-creating new businesses to provide services and solutions in the digital space. The KDDI Digital Gate is a major part of this strategy which we heard about later. In partnership with JBPress, KDDI had organised a conference titled “Digital Innovation Leadership” and we had been invited to attend after the office tour and lunch. JJ Sutherland gave a talk, introducing Scrum and its benefits for innovation, and there were other speakers; thought leaders in digital innovation in Japan. Amongst them, we heard from Akihito Fujii, General Manager of the KDDI Solutions Business Planning Division, and Takayuki Yamane who spoke about the KDDI Digital Gate.
The KDDI Digital Gate is designed to be a space for innovation, where people can come together to create new products and services in a concept not too dissimilar to the Nordstrum Innovation Lab . The mission is not technology led, instead the starting question is always, “how can we create value?”. Design Thinking is encouraged to develop ideas that can be quickly turned into prototypes which are turned into products with direct feedback from customers evolving the product as it is being built. KDDI want to make the Digital Gate truly open, inviting partnerships and collaboration from anyone and hoping to spawn new startup businesses. It is set to launch in the summer of 2018.
In a few short years, KDDI have become one of the leaders in digital innovation and Agile in Japan. What we really liked was their openness and willingness to share. They are passionate about spreading the use of Agile outside of KDDI and supporting the new wave of innovation emerging in Japan.
Many thanks to KDDI for making us feel so welcome, and a special mention to Keisuke for organising our visit.