E080: Using Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to Transform Government and Nonprofits with Michael Areola

In this podcast, I interview Michael Areola, who is a Product Development consultant and Agile Coach at Cenmic Management in Katy, Texas (near Houston). He uses Agile processes and frameworks to streamline development processes, increase team efficiency, drive collaboration and reduce wasted time. He is a Project Management Professional and Agile Certified Practitioner from PMI, and holds numerous SAFe certifications from Scaled Agile. He has a masters degree in Management Information Systems from Texas Southern University (along with a Six Sigma Yellow Belt certification), and has a bachelors degree in Accounting from Rufus Giwa Polytechnic (Nigeria).

Prior to his current work with Cenmic, he worked in large organizations like SAP and Bank of America, as well as government agencies like North Carolina Department of Information Technology and nonprofits like the Houston Center for Literacy.

If you’re not familiar with Agile or SAFe or DevOps, here is a quick summary of these terms:

  • Agile – A method to break product development work into small increments that minimize the amount of up-front planning and design through the use of frequent “sprints.” These sprints typically last from one to four weeks, and involves a cross-functional team working in all functions. At the end of the iteration, a working product is demonstrated to stakeholders and customers, which minimizes overall risk, and allows the product to adapt to changes quickly.
  • SAFe® – Acronym for Scaled Agile Framework, which is designed to help businesses continuously and more efficiently deliver value on a regular and predictable schedule. It uses the principles of Lean.
  • DevOps – Short for Development Operations. More specifically, software development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops). It attempts to shorten the systems development life cycle and provide continuous delivery with high software quality. Several DevOps aspects came from the Agile methodology.
  • Business Agility – The ability of an organization or business to rapidly adapt to market and environmental changes in productive and cost-effective ways. Agile is an extension of this concept that uses key principles of complex adaptive systems and complexity science to achieve success.

You can watch the full video of his presentation here…



Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1)?” The book is made up of 8 chapters written about experiences from Lean and Six Sigma practitioners, to give you tips and tricks to help you work with nonprofits in your area. All proceeds donated to charity. We are also close to releasing Volume 2, so check back for the latest news.


Brion (B): Welcome, Michael. Can you just give me a little bit of background and tell me how you got into your current roles and some of your schooling and background?

Michael (M): Thank you, Brion. My name is Michael Areola. I started my career from accounting, but along the line, I was interested in SAP. SAP is a leading enterprise resource planning software. I was testing SAP and then, from there, one thing leads to the other. I eventually took project management, and then when I started learning about Agile as far back as I think 2010, and then I sat for my first certification in Agile in 2014, for PMI (Project Management Institute) at SAP. It was kind of new to me then because my background was in a traditional methodology, so for a couple of months, I was making research. Then after my certification, I understand a little bit of the kind of career opportunity and then how Agile tends to be helping a new organizations because of the digital transformation, the digital age.

When SAFe came on board, Scale Agile Incorporation, they came in with the higher level of how you can Scaled Agile from that team level to program, and then up to portfolio. They give us kind of a new perception about how you can combine people improvement with process improvements to allow organizations to deliver value and quality to customers or to the end-users.

The early Agile was focusing on people; so Scaled Agile combines Lean with DevOps and Agile. That platform, I find it very intuitive, so I aligned with them. And then ever since, I’m a certified SAFe Program Consultant. I’m also a partner with SAFe, so I train, I’m a coach. Outside that, I also consult. I help organizations to transition either from the waterfall predictive methodology into Agile mindset. I also help organizations to transition their basic Agile transformation to Lean Agile by scaling them up to a program or a portfolio level.

B: So you have an IT background, and then you got into working in SAP systems, and then you learned about this new methodology you’re calling the SAFe is the certification around Agile. Is that correct?

M: Yes. We have numerous stratifications of body of knowledge, so SAFe happens to be one of them. I have Master’s in Management Information System, so the information management is not new to me. SAFe is the leading role when it comes to adopting or transforming an organization, especially an enterprise, into Agile. There are other body of knowledge, like we have also is it PSM and we have Scrum Alliance, but most of those are other organizations, they are not at a scale level.

B: So they’re enterprise level. Okay, I see. Could you explain the difference with the waterfall model and the Agile model? because I think that’s something that is different for people who aren’t familiar with Agile to think about a project or a program rolling out with a more flexible approach with Agile.

M: One clarification I would like to make is there are some misconceptions about Agile. Agile is not competing with traditional approach; it’s not competing with waterfall. Waterfall, we call it a predictive methodology where you have to gather requirements or elicit requirements. The requirement is known, and then so you can start a project from inception and then deliver at the end. But having said that, Agile came in to give us that opportunity to work with customers and, most especially, incremental delivery. That is the basic principles of Agile, incremental delivery in a cyclical order. So you have short-short iteration, and then you deliver incremental value, something usable to customers versus waterfall that delivers a lump sum of requirements at the end of the contract.

And also, with Agile, it has been well researched that when you deliver early and frequently to customers, you tend to earn premium. Your product works premium because, at that time, it’s not commoditized, you enjoy that monopolistic power until people start realizing this is a new invention and they start venturing into that, and then the market is flooded. The quality will still be maintained, but the supplies outweigh demands and then the price will crash. So if you want to innovate, then you need to use Agile because it’s going to make you to deliver your products incrementally, you keep your customer busy. You don’t give them too much, and then you also keep them busy, and then they can also help you to validate your products.

Versus waterfall where you have to look for someone to go and seek requirement and then- but with Agile, the customer is part of the process. There’s a lot of collaboration and then there’s a lot of validation, constant feedback. And then because the value flow freely because you manage the queue properly. So every stages of waterfall it’s embedded in Agile, but it’s just that we are able to do it within that short-short windows of iteration. So we do all the design, all the elicitation, implementation, and validation every two weeks.

B: Yeah, and I think that’s interesting that you said that it can fit in with a traditional waterfall because you’re just, instead of waiting weeks or months between interactions with the customer or milestones, you’re saying, every two weeks, we are touching base with that customer and making sure that we’re on track and we’re getting feedback and we’re hearing from them and keeping them engaged so that we can learn from the next iterations and the updates we’ve been providing and that’s going to build that innovation, like you said.

Watching from afar, I’ve just seen the growth of Agile just take off over the last 10 to 20 years and it’s been very impressive. I think it’s mainly because the methods work really well and the customers and the people involved in those processes seem to enjoy that process better.

M: Yeah, it’s actually not a method; it’s a mindset. Because if it’s a methodology, then I can come over to your company and then implement the same process without looking at your culture, without looking at your environment. It’s a mindset, so you try to learn the principles and you apply it to practices to derive the values.

B: Yeah, you’re right. Just like in any improvement work, most of it is the mindset around “we’re going to talk about problems and we’re going to try to solve these problems, and we can solve these problems, and it’s okay to have mistakes and issues.” We’re not pointing fingers at people; we’re pointing fingers at the process that’s broken. I think that’s very similar to what I’ve experienced.

M: Having said that, there are some challenges. Most people, they can’t reach that sustainability level after their transformation. Later, we can touch and talk about how to prepare the environment for Agile. Most people just, like any other progressive program, it’s require change management, so yeah.

B: You’ve done some work with the nonprofit world or some of the government agencies or is that a space you’re moving into?

M: Yeah, so I’ve done a few with them. This practice is very new to nonprofit. Initially, when the Agile first came in, it was basically for software. But with SAFe, with the advent of introducing Lean, Lean is a proven methodology that has been used now for many decades, so with that, we now take Agile outside software to other functional area of an organization. The latest version of Scaled Agile Incorporation is called Business Agility, which means every functional area of organization or service management, you can be Agile. They’re talking about throughout the operating process, the initial on the operating process that was being used by old methodology is still in place, but on top of that, we’re saying that you can build agility into your processes.

Most governmental organizations find it intuitive. The end result is different because most of businesses, most organizations, they’re in business to make money, to profit. But my experience with the governmental transformation in North Carolina, I worked with an information technology department. They started using Agile to deliver values to their citizens. They’re using Agile from- because they were so embedded with the project management approach, so it’s kind of new to them telling them to change mindsets from project to product management. Most of them are being bound, they’re bounded by some regulations that states you have to use project management, hard value analysis to do your project, to do your project management control, but Agile doesn’t work along that route.

They started to make those changes and then so those are the areas that, initially, they have challenges. But now, Agile is helping them to manage- they use a lot of multiple suppliers, so Agile is creating that avenue for them to manage multiple agencies, especially with SAFe. That is something that SAFe call Agile Release Train. The Agile Release Train helps multiple agencies to come together and plan together to resolve problems together and it creates a kind of alignment, so this is cost-effective. Agencies, they don’t have to use individual departments to execute projects. Now, we can bring multiple agencies together under the Agile Release Train, and then we can create alignment and then be able to continuously deliver value to the citizen in this service, improved services, yeah. So in that area, Ministry of Defense, Pentagon, everybody is growing on Agile right now.

Also, there are some other areas that I’ve worked with nonprofit organization, like in counselling area, working with organizations that I help them to apply Lean kanban, so the way that they manage their flow to reduce the queue. Everything is inclusive of Agile principles with Lean. That is one area that SAFe is helping us a lot. They bring all that together, and then you can deliver that to your clients where you can help them construct a kanban board, and then you can help them to manage the inflow of their work from beginning to the end, helping them to establish what we call value stream mapping. Value stream and then mapping the value stream, helping them to see how they deliver value from beginning to the end, making sure that they are able to deliver quality and value at shortest and sustainable lead time. Helping them to establish the difference between the development value stream and operational values.

Operational value stream already is existing, so we let them know that, okay, people that’s going to help you to develop your products or your services, they need to work hand-in-hand and bring in DevOps into the process. It’s not just for profit-making. We do that for service management and improvement, delivering quality. Everybody wants to deliver value and quality.

B: That’s really eye-opening, I think, when people understand that the value stream and where they work inside of a bigger process, and that the goal around making that experience run more efficiently than just, a lot of times, people are focused on their own piece of the value stream and they kind of lose sight of how they’re impacting or impacted by the bigger process. I think I’ve always found that very eye-opening when teams start to look at their work as a value stream and they see that I need to change my work to get the value stream to run better. And so, yeah, I think that it’s great to hear that the Agile fits in nicely with the value stream mapping principles.

M: And the nonprofits will find this very intuitive because we’re talking about how do you divide your service or how do you divide your services to the end-users? “Oh, okay, this is the trigger point and to this point.” Then, “Okay, so our focus is going to be within that train, and then you can pick an area of improvement,” instead of we’re looking at a project and this other department is running this project, multiple projects, sometimes. In the area of when businesses are looking to reduce the price or to create a barrier, I would say it’s very useful to both profit and nonprofit organization.

B: Yeah, and I’m really excited about working towards some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that are out there with big challenges with hunger and poverty and environmental problems and water usage and things like that. And so, yeah, I see these methods of Lean and Agile as ways we can help these organizations that are working on those big problems to do their work easier and simpler and faster and higher quality and higher value and not wasting money on projects that don’t really help the end-user and the end recipient who needs that service or help. So, yeah, I think that’s really exciting for me. This podcast is trying to get the word out that there are some good techniques out there for doing things smarter and better.

M: Yes, using project management to manage your initiative is outdated. Yeah, it’s outdated. Agile is good for any high risk. Whatever you think this is a risky endeavor, it’s going to require a substantial financial commitment, or it’s going to have to reach a wider audience, then you can start to introduce Lean approach in cyclical orders. It’s not like we have to do a big plan. It’s continuously improve, relentless improve one after the other until we reach that sustainable state.

B: So you went through and how did you get through the SAFe certification? did you go through some training?

M: Oh, yes. I started as a SAFe Program Consultant, so that was three days training. And then after that, I sat for my exam and I passed. And then that enables me to implement SAFe at enterprise level, but I wanted something more than that. I wanted to be able to train, and so for you to be able to train a particular- in SAFe, we have different certification, so we have SPCT, so SAFe Program Consultants. You can train or coach every other classes, but you have to get there’s something we call Enablement. If I want to coach a Scrum Master, I haven’t passed the Scrum certification, so I have to assign that to myself. After that, I can start training or coaching. I can coach in an organization, I can help them with transformation, but when it comes to dispensing a certification training, I have to go through that Enablement or get certified.

B: Very neat. Any other examples you want to talk through? it could be the for-profit sector or nonprofit, but anything else you wanted to share in terms of how you’ve helped organizations or maybe examples that you’ve enjoyed or some of your favorites?

M: Yeah, so like the states that I worked with in the North Carolina, so that the process, like I said earlier on with this, it could be challenging. When you want to introduce an Agile, you have to derive the vision, the management have to get the backing, you have to have an executive sponsor, someone that understands what we’re about to do. It’s just like any other change management, if you don’t get the buy-in, you can’t make it happen. You have to have a coalition, people that believe in the dream that can run with you, that can help you because along the line, you will see some driving forces and then you will see restraining forces. The driving forces will help you to run with it. They’re going to convince others to work with you. But the restraining forces is just that they don’t buy into it. Maybe sometimes they’ve undergone a failed change management product.

For me, my strength is to build bridges using my business acumen and my capability to work with a technician or technical people to go across the aisle and then try to understand what are their concerns or constraints, then we try to see how we can help them out. If it’s as a result of past failure, then we can start showing the result incrementally. Because we are not dealing with a huge initiative, so we’re looking for a pilot project, and then we can start by showing them how this is going to work out. As soon as they start seeing improvement, they come on board. But sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. It requires something I call a fire power. Someone in leadership coming to tell them this is the way to go and this is where we’re going. It takes that authority sometimes to make change happen.

Also, building coalition is key, especially in a governmental environment where it’s not like a business area that you know you have to do it, but they’re kind of laid back when it comes to operations in the government sectors. They don’t get things done like that quick-quick-quick, so you have to understand the terrain, so the culture. And then I talk about regulatory requirements also that says, okay, this is being regulated by law, so you can’t change the way you’re doing the governance, the way that you’re doing your monitoring, the oversight. It’s backed up by a law, so you just have to understand that and go with what you can go with and then try to see how we can improve. This is my experience with governmental.

Outside, in non-governmental, with the other nonprofit that I work with in the area of the making sure their flow system is improved, they are queue system is- it’s not that much different, but outside the government arena, everybody is always business-like. Even it’s nonprofit, there’s a target. But the government approach, they don’t have a target, so their project is almost like a blanket project and then each of the agencies will have to submit a huge paper and that’s not how Agile works.

But yeah, right now, there’s a lot of improvement because they’ve started implementing- we bid for contracts in most of these government agencies. There is a bid that we just tender very early last year, but because of the pandemic, it’s been put on hold. We’re going to start introducing Lean portfolio to replace the traditional project management portfolio because we want to collapse the notion that the program manage multiple projects. We want to bring everything under the value stream. The value stream is under the portfolio, and then the value stream will control the Agile in this train, so the mindset is changing.

B: Yeah, and I can imagine it’s a little challenging when you’re bidding for some of those contracts with traditional mindsets around these big packages and fill out this detailed form about how it’s going to turn out and they want this confidence and assurance that it’s going to work exactly like that and that’s not reality.

M: They’re going to make you to bid for this new mindset using the old mindset, so the template they give you is the waterfall. “We want you to do a work breakdown structure,” and it’s like, “Ah!”

B: Yeah, that could be frustrating. So yeah, hopefully, you start to see more in the future where they’re looking for more of an Agile mindset with these bids and contracts.

M: Yeah, I think they are getting it now. And then the part of the program they were thinking, they have huge supplier, they use a lot of suppliers for most of it, so it’s like how do we coordinate but with the introduction of Agile Release Train, so coordinating activities with suppliers is easier? we don’t care what methodology they’re using; what we care is about increment. Make it happen, they’re part of us, they know what we’re doing, and they’ll get it ready when we need it.

B: I think that’s really important what you said about doing like a pilot project to help build the support and the change management around a new way of doing the work. But to your point, sometimes that’s not enough, right? even if you have a great success on the pilot, it doesn’t mean people want to change the way they’re doing things, so it does help that you have a leadership that’s driving change as well.

M: Yeah, it’s only leadership that can sustain the transformation.

B: Right, yep. Is this your own consulting firm that you’re doing now or you’re working for a firm?

M: I’m doing my consulting. I have a training outfit and I’m doing my consulting as well. I’m trying to get some-

B: The desire is to be able to do more, expand some of the work you were doing, or is there a certain audience you’re working with?

M: Part of what we’re doing now, we have higher institutions initiatives, so we’re trying to go into some management schools in most of these universities to- SAFe is talking about a knowledge worker, so people started waking up to, okay, what is knowledge worker? so we want them to understand the terrain has changed, so the way everybody wants- before you get on board, they want you to have had one experience or the other about Agile. Even the way the HR hires is changing, so we’re asking them take the issue of money off the table. When you talk to people, you know what they’re worth. Pay them what they’re worth.

And then we’re talking about stop the annual review process. If the team deliver good product value, the team is good. The evaluation should be based on the team; not manager outside the teams evaluating individuals, meanwhile there was a concerted effort, they were collaborating all the way. So annual review should be based on the team performance, not- so there’s a lot of new initiative coming through SAFe, so we’re trying to make sure that we take this to colleges. Most people that are in most of the business schools, trying to offer Agile training and the tools, teaching them how to use the tools like Jira, like a Microsoft Azure DevOps that they can use to administer the new mindset.

B: Okay, yeah, that’s great. I think I’m seeing a lot more Lean and process improvement training coming through in the business schools and supply chain students and engineering teams, so that’s great. I think Agile is also needed so people coming out of school are familiar with it and maybe have a little experience with that as well. That’s great.

M: We work with them to let them dispense their academic curriculum using Lean, using a kanban so they’re kind of familiar with it. In the news recently, you’ve been seeing digital transformation, design thinking, system thinking. These are all part of Lean processes that SAFe is bringing that all together with Agile. So we have Agile, we have Lean, and then we have DevOps, so it’s unbeatable.

B: I like that, yep. That reminded me, I was talking with a nonprofit recently and they said the same thing, that they have just individual performance reviews. No annual reviews, no team-based goals or metrics, nothing around the value stream. I think they’re realizing that that’s part of the problem is if we’re all focused on our own performance, we’re actually incentivized not to help the value stream or fill in where there’s delays or be able to learn other skills to help the flow, right? and so, yeah, I think that’s an area that, hopefully, we’re moving away from that and moving to more team-based, like a sports team, right? that you win or lose as a team. It doesn’t matter if someone scores a lot of points if your team loses.

M: Most of the nonprofit organization that I’ve tried to send my proposal to them, and it’s kind of, “Okay, tell me what is this all about?” I start telling them about the characteristic of Agile or Lean, of a team-centric, value-driven approach and it’s like, “What is this autonomous?” I say, “Yeah, you give them the environment and trust them, and then they’ll deliver.” “Who is going to manage them?” “No, they’ll self-manage.”

B: That’s different. Yeah, very different.

M: They say, “Self-management? you don’t need somebody to manage?” “No, you don’t have to.” they say, “They’re going to make mistakes.” I say, “Yeah, it’s part of the process. When they make mistakes, they learn and they move forward.” One of the directors was like, “So at what point in time did you come in to correct them?” “The team is going to correct each other.” He said, “No, it’s not going to work.”

B: He didn’t believe you?

M: I think people’s mindset about the whole way of micromanaging people, it’s like if not because of the pandemic, they hardly believe people can work from home. This is what Agile has been saying. It’s the team. The team members agree with the team that, oh yeah. Because of the emotional intelligence, we know that this person needs to stay home from one reason or the other, then the team said they can stay home. So the HR doesn’t have any input; it is the team. As much as they are producing results, so just give them the enabling environment and then see them transitioning from that “poor me” stage to a performance stage over time.

B: Yeah, I think this year has proven that out, that people can have autonomy if you give them the right goals and focus on the customer and the end users and empower them to make their own decisions and not micromanage everything they’re doing, I think people find out that they can go faster. Yes, they will make a few mistakes initially, but they’ll also learn faster and will be performing much better in a year from now than under the old style and method.

M: Yeah, because most of this, in leadership, when you’re talking about innovation, you want to build innovation, but you don’t want to make mistakes. It doesn’t happen.

B: Right, yeah. We want to do something creative and new, but we want to do it perfectly. It doesn’t work.

M: Yeah, one-time.

B: Right. This is great. Is there anything else you wanted to discuss or talk about or share?

M: I’m good. Anytime you have anything you want us to talk about, I’m also an advocate of Lean improve processing, so every area. I have a group that I managed, about 200 in a group that I created, so these are people that want to learn or people that are already in Lean Agile. We have a Telegram page. Initially, it was a Whatsapp, but we moved it to Telegram and, very soon, we’re going to have a website that you can reach out to other. We have people within the group that deliver free lectures, just making people to be aware of this new mindset and we call them Agile Positive Group.

At any opportunity, we’re advocating for Lean, systems to be more linear in their approach, and then see how we can turn around a situation very fast, especially in the areas that people always believe that this is too risky. There’s nothing like a conflict, but unexamined assumptions, so we want to people to come forward. Actually, let’s have your assumptions and let’s help you to examine them, and then let’s show you how this new mindset can help you to deliver incrementally faster time to market. And then if you are embarking on the initiative that is not worth it, you will discover because you can fail fast and then change course.

B: That’s great. Yeah, and if we can link to the group maybe or a way that they can find out more about the group, if you can send me some of those links as well as to your contact information so, if people have questions, they can reach you. Do you prefer LinkedIn or would you rather have people connect through your website?

M: I’ll give you both. I’m open to either of those connections.

B: Great. Yeah, I’ll post those on the notes of this interview and, yeah, hopefully people can connect with you and learn more about SAFe and Agile and some of the work you’re doing.

M: Thank you very much.

B: Thank you so much for your time. This has been informative for me too. I learned some new things.

M: Me too. Thank you, too.

B: Okay, thank you so much. Talk to you later.

M: I appreciate that.