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IT Nation 2015: Take an agile approach to managed services

MSP executives experienced a dramatic reduction of service tickets after incorporating concepts of the agile methodology into their business practices.

ORLANDO, FLA. -- In yesterday's IT Nation 2015 breakout session, "Enabling the Agile MSP," two executives of Liberty Technology Ltd., a managed service provider (MSP) and ConnectWise partner based in Griffin, Ga., discussed how they have adapted and applied the agile approach to their day-to-day MSP business practices.

"Agile is a framework for how projects are delivered and for how processes are implemented," said Nathan Jones, COO of Liberty Technology. Coming from a software development background, Jones said he worked with Ben Johnson, Liberty's CEO, to apply agile principles to their managed services technicians and how they handle service tickets.

"What we found was the technicians had heard of agile but didn't really know what it was," he said. They began a regular process of educating their staff about agile methodology and gained company buy-in.

In July 2015, Liberty Technology officially started using its MSP version of the agile approach, drawing from two different agile concepts: scrum and the kanban method. By the end of six weeks, the MSP's average number of daily tickets opened had dropped by 50%, said Jones and Johnson, freeing up time to focus on doing more proactive work.

Team self-organization

One of the scrum principles Liberty Technology decided to use is team self-organization. "This was a big one for us," Jones said. "When we started talking about this idea of a self-forming team actually volunteering for the work, [our technicians] couldn't believe it."

Creating a sprint cycle is a way of reaching our goals, celebrating our victories and continuing.
Nathan JonesCOO, Liberty Technology

Since implementing team self-organization, they have observed their technical staff successfully recognize a problem, form a team around it, talk it through and solve it, Johnson said.

Jones and Johnson added that when their technicians created their own sets of rules to govern their work, they got more buy-in with those rules. "That's really a game-changer in that your techs are going to do it a lot more willingly if it was their idea versus you telling them to do it," Johnson said. "And also from an accountability standpoint: It's really hard to weasel your way out of something when you've tacitly agreed to it."

Sprints: Working in time-bound cycles

"In scrum, there's a thing called a sprint ... which is simply a time-bound opportunity to work through the development of a product," Jones said. Generally, sprints will range from two to four weeks but never longer, "because you want it to be bite-sized, achievable, doable chunks of time where you can actually focus on something."

At the sprint planning phase just ahead of the sprint, Jones said everybody gets involved and talks about the most important thing they need to tackle, what they have time to do and so forth, and then they execute. In agile software development, this is done with the aim of having a potentially releasable piece of code -- something that the stakeholder can see is working -- at the end of the sprint.

Throughout a sprint, Liberty Technology does a standup meeting every morning to discuss open tickets and track progress.

"Creating a sprint cycle is a way of reaching our goals, celebrating our victories and continuing," he said.

Plus/delta exercises

At the end of the sprint, the team reconvenes and evaluates what was accomplished and does the plus/delta exercise, one of Jones' favorite activities for driving continuous improvement. In the exercise, "everybody gets a free chance to say what worked," he said. "We write all those pluses down. And then we talk about what didn't work. What was a failure? What really didn't get the results we were looking for? We write all those down."

They review the plus/delta lists at the beginning of the next sprint to figure out how to keep the pluses and correct the delta. "We have this loop of continuous improvement," Jones said.

Visualizing work: The kanban method

Kanban is a method of visualizing work that in its simplest form uses three columns entitled "to do," "doing" and "done" on a board, Jones said. With the company's technical orientation, Liberty Technology first considered building kanban software but ultimately chose to keep it simple, writing down tasks on sticky notes and sticking them to the board. Eventually, Liberty Technology did write some middleware using a tool called Kanbanize to pull service tickets into the kanban board on a web app. When technicians move tickets from one column to the next, it changes the status on ConnectWise.

"We really credit kanban for our drop in tickets -- 50% in just six weeks," he said.

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