By applying Agile principles and practices, our team remediated a significant business challenge with a county government’s mainframe-based tax system—without enforcing a framework or changing vocabulary and in a fraction of the time and cost.
Dec. 20, 2021 | By Bob Dobson
Some say Agile principles only apply to modern technologies, like web application programming interfaces (APIs) and Java. It’s certainly true that much of the newest tooling focuses on these kinds of platforms. And yet, organizations using older technologies can see results by skillfully applying Agile principles and practices. Here is an example of how we applied an Agile approach to solve for a flaw in a county’s tax system—and what we learned along the way.
County Government Discovers Mainframe Challenge
I frequently use this example from a few years ago because it illustrates the power of Agile principles—no matter the platform or the industry. We worked with a county government that handled billing taxes for multiple governmental agencies. One of the agencies had an error to their input to the county. This resulted in overcharging taxpayers on a school bond. As one can imagine, an error in collecting taxes is serious business.
County leadership held a meeting to assess the situation. The tax system, a mainframe application, was 30 years old at the time. Previous upgrade attempts were costly and ultimately unsuccessful. Operators reviewed their procedures and informed leadership there was no way to roll back the error. The entire system operated on forward calculations. Some taxpayers had already paid the overcharge and needed refunds.
Rapid Solutions Needing Agile Principles
After outsourcing their IT operations, the county sought a new partner to handle this urgent need. To complicate matters, the tax system was connected to the county's financial systems. The problem landed on my desk about noon on a Friday. The ask was, "Can we fix this?" Ultimately, we were tasked with developing a solution to:
- Recalculate the tax for the affected taxpayers
- Issue refunds to anyone who paid the incorrect amount
Our Agile transformation team included four mainframe programmers with various levels of experience in the county. At the time, I served as a technical lead, supporting tax applications. We were on a time crunch for a resolution—about six months—to avoid legal action and recalls. We needed to show progress quickly—luckily emergency funds were available.
Agile Transformation in Action—Not Only in Theory
Blank whiteboards and a surplus of markers surrounded us. We spent about three hours working on the list of cant’s. Everyone had the opportunity to talk, draw and ask questions. I wanted the team to have an organic discussion while I gently guided the conversation forward using an Agile framework. We took a couple breaks and then spent about an hour sketching out a possible solution. We presented to leadership with several caveats:
- We believed we had a way forward
- We didn’t know all the risks
- We would need rapid turnaround on decisions
In about five days, we aligned with the county on a limited set of outcomes that we had a high confidence of delivering. We continued to work with the county to prioritize our efforts.
During those first few days, we conducted fast experiments, confirming various ideas about changes we proposed. Our mainframe programmer suggested that we create separate file sets. This allowed us to use Agile principles including isolating various procedures for testing. We would try something, look at our file set to observe the effects and adjust. Developing this practice within the Agile model built psychological safety for experimentation.
Cross-Functional Team Delivers Ahead of Schedule
We quickly established daily calls with key decision makers from the county and several people who had detailed knowledge of the tax rules and usage. We devoted that time to review actions taken, outline next steps and identify anything else in the way. Our cross-functional team kicked off the calls and walked participants through current and future system changes. Then, as a group, we would discuss any questions that arose and make live updates based on the conversation. I measured our accuracy in how many, "No, not like that” statements we heard. Our first touchpoint using this Agile model lasted about two hours, the next about an hour. Soon after, they only took 15-30 minutes.
In two weeks, we recalculated the correct tax rate for the overtaxed residents and issued corrected bills—a milestone the county hoped we would reach in 60 days. Also, by that time, we were back on sustainable hours. Daily updates continued getting shorter each day. By the fourth week, we calculated adjustments for people who had paid their incorrect bills—a milestone the county had hoped to reach in six months. By that time, we focused on business agility and built a system to automate refunds, saving about three processing hours per refund. We continued to monitor the system for adverse effects—the defects. At just six weeks, we no longer needed daily calls, determined the incident resolved and went back to business as usual.
Partnership Delivers Business Agility
Within a month, every taxpayer received a corrected bill, refunds were processed and the county had an automated refund system it didn’t know it needed, along with accurate diagrams of how this incredibly complex system worked. Our team received a letter from county leadership thanking us profusely for our efforts. They said, "In the history of the outsourcing contract, we have never had a partner who has stepped up like this."
Several factors contributed to the success. We had:
- County leadership’s complete attention—they were engaged and made decisions rapidly without an emphasis on detailed plans or status
- Experts, including a mainframe programmer who understood the system and a practitioner of Agile principles to guide the effort
- Business and IT working closely together in a very visual way, limiting our work in progress to only the most critical thing
- Common goal across teams of making it right for taxpayers
More Than Applying Agile Principles
At first, this may not seem like a story of Agile transformation. There aren’t mentions of sprints, stand ups, backlogs, test-driven development or scrums. Those who have studied Agile, particularly Scaled Agile, should recognize, however, many practices and the application of multiple principles in what we did.
That's what really matters—the correct application of Agile principles and practices. Being Agile rather than simply doing Agile.
About the Author
Bob Dobson is SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) with a passion for creating software solutions to business problems. With experience in government and private sector IT programs across a range of industries, Bob thrives on helping organizations discover pragmatic solutions to business problems using a variety of technologies and practices. When he’s not at work, Bob enjoys gardening and has recently discovered a newfound appreciation for radio frequencies (de KI5QVD).
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