Supersizing SAFe at Boeing

Debbie Brey has worked at Boeing for 35 years, where she is an internal SPCT and Enterprise Transformation Leader. She is currently leading an enterprise-wide initiative to incorporate an Agile way of working into the Boeing culture.

Brey takes us behind the scenes on the massive undertaking of bringing digital transformation to the century-old enterprise. Her program, a subset of a 4,000-5,000 employee IT organization, consists of 234 Agile teams organized into 20 Agile Release Trains and two Solution Trains with a “Super Solution Train” around it. Hear some great insights into the company’s Agile journey as well as some predictions for the future.

“In 5 years, will we be talking about SAFe and Agile? I hope not. I hope it’s just the way we work at Boeing.”

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at the Global SAFe Summit 2019 in San Diego.

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Full Transcript:

LESLIE MORSE: Hello and welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Leslie Morse, and we are podcasting live at the Global Safe Summit 2019 in sunny San Diego. Today, I am joined by Debbie Brey. Debbie Brey is an internal SPCT and enterprise transformation leader at Boeing. She has been a force in their transformation to Agile over the past 13 years. As an associate technical fellow, she was able to influence the F-22 program to being their Agile transformation while at the same time launching an Agile initiative for Boeing defense. While the F-22 program was one of the pilots, Debbie was able to coach and train over 40 different teams and programs across the company. She’s now leading an enterprise-wide initiative to incorporate an Agile way of working into the Boeing culture, and Debbie has also had the great honor of being the first internal SPCT and is using that to help mature more Agile change agents.
Debbie, thank you for being here.

DEBBIE BREY: I’m so excited to be here.

LESLIE MORSE: I had the pleasure of actually meeting you face to face before our podcast today, the Women in Agile breakfast this morning.

DEBBIE BREY: Which was another awesome inspirational talk.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, it was really great. And then got to chat with a handful of people that were at your session yesterday here at the conference and had nothing but amazing things to say about it. So, congratulations.

DEBBIE BREY: Thank you. It was very nice to have that done by the first session of the day.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes, that is a nice place to be in. Just get it over with and then you can really relax.


LESLIE MORSE: So, I really want to use our chat today to help inspire others with the story of everything that’s been happening at Boeing, because not everybody was able to be at the conference this year and of course even attend your session. There’s so much great content happening. So, I know all of this has really been built around the idea of digital transformation for you all. And it’s a buzz word, it means something different to everybody. So when you think digital transformation at Boeing, what does that really mean?

DEBBIE BREY: We’ve got three factors that go into a digital transformation. One is actually our business processes because we know that as we change our tooling, that we have to change our business policies and practices and make it all easier to use, right?

Then there’s the technology piece of it, which is what everybody thinks about. Going to more common tools, enabling our products, our physical products to be able, to be represented in a digital manner. Automating a lot of the things that we would do manually, like bills of materials and parts lists and things like that, as well as having what we call a digital thread, which is just really easy access to all of the information that goes into building an airplane or building a satellite or whatever it is that the product is that we’re building. So, that if we’re using a part on one airplane, we could use that same part on another airplane and you don’t have to have that duplication.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s almost like the information and asset value stream, that’s the undercurrent of the enterprise.

DEBBIE BREY: Right. And also the supply chain piece of it too, and being able to digitize that whole supply chain and all the parts and suppliers and everything that we have. It amazes me whenever I go look at an airplane and you think about all the pieces and parts that go into it and then all the suppliers that are behind that. Making that simpler has to improve our business.

LESLIE MORSE: Classic lean thinking in many ways.

DEBBIE BREY: Absolutely. And we’ve had lean in the factory for a long time, but being able to connect it to the data, which the data is the third piece of that, is having the data access to all that and the data analytics that tell us that this is a better way than that way. Because as humans we’re flawed and we can’t really figure those things out ourselves.

And then I think underlying the whole thing is culture. That we really, in order to make this effective, and I’ve read so many things about digital transformations failing, and it’s because they didn’t get the culture piece of it right. So, we even have business transformation services teams that are working with our internal Boeing programs as we’re delivering them these new solutions to get them ready to use these new tools and technologies.
So it’s really huge. It’s going to affect every-

LESLIE MORSE: Everything.

DEBBIE BREY: … single one at Boeing.

LESLIE MORSE: And really affecting everyone in different ways than when we just talk about Agile, right? An Agile transformation is affecting everyone in the organization. Digital transformation, I think. Is even more permeating across an enterprise. And so the birth of digital transformation there, as well as the initiation of Agile transformation work that you all have been doing over the years as well. How did those really start converging and start working together?

DEBBIE BREY: Well, we’ve been playing with Agile for a number of years at Boeing. Little bits here and there. And it was really, actually two years ago at the Safe Summit, I got a phone call from one of the chief architects on what we call, this is what we call our second century enterprise system. So this is the program that’s leading the transformation.

And he said, “Debbie, we’ve got to go safe on this. We’re not aligned. The work isn’t visible. We’re struggling with pulling this large diverse group of people together because it’s not only IT, but we need all of our business units and business people to tell us how are you doing business today? And then have that design thinking to how we can make it better with the digital tools.”
And so I was really excited and really scared at the same time because I-

LESLIE MORSE: That’s where magic stuff happens, by the way. When you’re excited and scared at the same time.

DEBBIE BREY: Oh, yeah.

LESLIE MORSE: Anything is possible.

DEBBIE BREY: Exactly. So, then I went back to Boeing and got to talk to a few of the leaders and they were just all in, and we had support all the way up through the CIO, who’s the one that’s sponsoring this digital transformation. So, in January of 2018 we kicked off our Agile transformation and one of the things that we said was not only are we going to integrate Agile and Safe into our digital transformation, but we’re going to design this into our new business processes so that when we’re done, this is how programs and projects are going to be run in the future.

LESLIE MORSE: I love the intentionality behind that. What was it that really locked leadership into believing that that was important?

DEBBIE BREY: I think it’s because … Well they actually started this program out saying that it was going to be about an Agile way of working, which is great. Sometimes I think the words get put out there and they don’t really know what it means.

LESLIE MORSE: A little bit of corporate propaganda sometimes.

DEBBIE BREY: Yeah, yeah. But this program, we were two years into this program when I got there and I think that they realized that the standard way of working wasn’t going to get there. And it may have been a little bit of my nudging that made them go through the, “Okay this will be our way of working going forward.” But that was my whole intent is, “Okay, you get something out of it because I’m going to help you. I want something out of it because I want to carry this beyond this program right here.”

LESLIE MORSE: Would you say that this work you’re doing at Boeing now is the foundation of the legacy you want to leave with them?

DEBBIE BREY: Absolutely. I brought Agile into Boeing in 2008, we dropped the ball in about 2014, we went into what I call the Agile dark ages. Which was about three years of we lost all of the leadership support, nobody really thought about it. And then all of a sudden we hit our second century-

LESLIE MORSE: It’s the Renaissance.

DEBBIE BREY: I know. It’s like we hit 100 years and everybody’s making these plans for how we get to our next 100 years, and really just making sure that they understand. We have this thing that we’ve been doing for a while and experimenting with it and it’s been helping people be more productive and it’s making more engaged, happy people working at the company. And that’s where we want to go. So let’s use it. Let’s use it.

LESLIE MORSE: I really wish people could actually be here with us in the booth as we’re recording today. Because the poise and the confidence that you have when you’re speaking about this is just really infectious. And I love that.

DEBBIE BREY: I wish I felt that way inside. And it is scary to be leading this, but this is just … I’ve been with Boeing for 35 years now and yes, this is the legacy that I want to leave them, is to help find a different way of working where everybody feels like they’re empowered and engaged and able to say whatever they want to say.

LESLIE MORSE: I love it. I love it. And I don’t want to diminish the word, “This.” Because when you’re like, “Yeah, I’m doing this.” The people and scope of the change that you’re leading and sponsoring is really astounding. How many lives are you really touching in this journey?

DEBBIE BREY: Well, so in this one program, second century enterprise systems, we have 234 Agile teams organized into 20 Agile release trains and two solution trains with a super solution train around it because there were so many other Agile release trains that needed to be involved and integrated and aligned, and keeping the transparency there, that we just decided we needed that supersize.

So that was my talk, was on supersizing SAFe and we just broke the barriers of the framework by saying, okay, let’s look at the pattern of a solution train and let’s extend that a little bit farther to what we call a super solution train, because there’s too many people here. And I would say in some cases it’s because we still hadn’t broken the barriers of the leadership culture, so we wanted them to get the experience of a different way of working while we were still working at that hierarchical barrier that we were hitting.

LESLIE MORSE: Which many of us face in the work that we do.

DEBBIE BREY: I hear it all over the place. And I think eventually they will deconstruct from that large size. Our IT organization is maybe 4,000 to 5,000 people overall, and what we have done in this program is about to spread to the rest of IT. And overall in the company we have 97 Agile release trains, that I know of, that are operating. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what I know of.

We have over 100 SAFe program consultants that are out there coaching organizations and running classes and we’re just finding that people really resonate with the scaled Agile framework because it doesn’t just talk about teams. It really encompasses the entire organization all the way up to the portfolio and because of our scale we need something that’s a little bit bigger. Now in five years will we be talking about SAFe and Agile? I hope not. I hope this is just the way that we work at Boeing.

LESLIE MORSE: The vehicle now for creating the change that needs to happen.

DEBBIE BREY: Absolutely, yeah.

LESLIE MORSE: So, if people missed your talk, which many folks did, in terms of our listeners, what are some of those key milestones and learning moments across this journey of supersizing it that have really been pivotal to shaping the way things have gone?

DEBBIE BREY: Well, when I first came in because of the spend for this program, they were forced to use the wonderful earned value management tracking and managing of the budget. And they were doing six month rolling wave planning with this very siloed approach where each value stream would go off and do their own independent plan and then they’d go present it to the program leadership and the program leadership would do all the integration of the whole plan. Yeah, that doesn’t work, right?

So I said, “Hm, what pattern in Safe do we know of where we need to bring a bunch of people together to get aligned on a plan? PI planning. So, we created this thing called the solution workshop and we spent two days together, the leaders of all the Agile release trains and the solution trains, face-to-face together in a room, and we made our plan for the next PI and set up our roadmap for the following two.

Bringing everybody together face to face who had only been on WebExes and telecoms and all that just unlocked the organization and-

LESLIE MORSE: Just the amount of human connection, that had to happen there.

DEBBIE BREY: That was it. Yeah, that was it. And they even commented on it afterwards. They were like, “Oh my gosh, this is great.” Because I met Fred and I met Sally and I’ve never seen them before face to face and we actually had a conversation and came to an understanding about what it was that we needed to do for the next 12 weeks.

LESLIE MORSE: And it makes me really think that as much as you’re a leader in engineering and technical competencies and in Agile and Lean and now digital transformation, you’re really in the relationship business.

DEBBIE BREY: I hope so.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. What does that feel like?

DEBBIE BREY: It’s kind of odd because I never thought I’d be there, as a software engineer growing up. But it’s really connecting the dots and just getting people in a room to talk to one another and then just letting the magic happen.

Because it wasn’t about me. It was about enabling the environment for them to have that happen. And sometimes you don’t get that opportunity. But this was a just an awesome opportunity. and they’ve continued to do it time after time after time, and it’s really helping them.

Now, recently we’ve had some issues with travel and so we’ve been cutting back on costs and we’re trying to figure out ways to do that without travel. And people are actually commenting, “But it’s not quite as good. It’s not helping us as much as it did before.” So I think we have to come to that balance of at least once or twice a year we could bring everybody together face to face, but maybe not four times a year or something. So, let’s be financially responsible while still creating that social network that we need to create.

LESLIE MORSE: What were some of the other important milestones?

DEBBIE BREY: Let’s see. I think getting to the leaders. We brought them in for a face to face workshop. This was the day before our solution workshop and we really just brought the execs in to say, “Where do you want this to go? How would you like us to move this forward? How do we get you guys talking together?” Because sometimes they would like show up at the beginning of PI planning and then they’re gone for the rest of the time and it was pivotal to bring them together.

And then I think they really started working on their own outside of what we were doing to enable some of the changes. My husband will tell you, the biggest thing for me was I finally got to talk to our CIO, which I was really excited about and it was a 30 minute conversation. It wasn’t even face to face. And I had five talking points that I wanted to say to him about why this was important and why we needed to use scale. And he said three of my talking points for me, and I went home that night-

LESLIE MORSE: Which is beautiful yet also probably nerve wracking.

DEBBIE BREY: I know. It was like, “Okay, thank you very much, Ted. This is great. Let’s move this forward.” And so he really helped me move to where I’m moving to today, which is to set up the enterprise Center of Excellence for Agile and really get our C-suite attention to that and to get them … Because IT’s really been driving a lot of the Agile transformation and outside of that, there’s been, “Yeah, it’s a bandaid. Let’s go apply it here and then we’ll take a 20% reduction in our price because we’re going to save that much.”

And I’m like, “You can’t do that.” Right? So, getting our execs to understand what Agile is, understand what it’s not, and then be able to understand where they could take advantage of it as well as the investment in the organization in order to make it happen. And then being able to take the value, but understand probably the initial value is going to be the human value side because you’re going to get more empowered employees and good programs and things like that.

The financial will come later. And maybe even get them working in an Agile way together.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes, leadership agility will be maybe on the horizon as well.

DEBBIE BREY: It absolutely is.

LESLIE MORSE: And so when I think about this, and in just the way you talk about it, I’m almost left with no question that this is something sustaining and long lasting for your organization. And I love that you’re an internal SPCT and that you’re leading this because I think that investment in the talent of the actual employees is a key thing that makes this last over time, versus just relying on an external consulting agency and a coaching partner to come help, in some ways do it for you, versus actually helping you do it yourself.

So, how has that idea of really investing in talent within Boeing shown up over the course of this journey?

DEBBIE BREY: When we started on the 2CES program, it was myself and one other Boeing person and we brought in some folks from IBM to help us. But I made it clear that I was leading the transformation and I was learning from what they had to give. As you can imagine, as we started to see more and more arts emerged, we needed more and more consultants. But we really didn’t have the people internally who could lead that. So, it became very clear that we needed to invest and move forward with the ISPCT program. So, it took me about a year to achieve the ISPCT, because I think I was in the class of June of 2017. Doesn’t sound right. Anyway, it was into my journey with 2CES and then I didn’t even know the ISPCT program existed prior to that.

LESLIE MORSE: I don’t think many organizations do.

DEBBIE BREY: No, it’s not marketed as well. I think it’s starting to emerge. There are three of us now, three or four of us. With a couple more in the pipeline. But the opportunity there was just amazing and then in February I had my final pairing. So, that was our first class of SPCs and then I’ve done two more and I’ve got one more to go before the end of the year. I have 48 new SPCs in Boeing this year. But as many people know, becoming an SPC doesn’t make you a coach.


DEBBIE BREY: And so what we’re doing now, in the Center of Excellence, is we’re starting a coaching academy. So, we’re running some experiments before the end of the year, but next year we’re going to start that academy. We’re going to have cohorts for each of the coaches. We’re going to run a 24 week program where they can experience, they’ve got that mentor there that they’re paired with to help them grow. Read one book a month and we’ll probably do some book clubs or something associated with that and just really help get it self sustaining because right now we are still relying a lot on our external partners to help us with the scale and scope that we’re doing. In the last two years, we have taught 5,000 people in SAFe.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s astonishing.

DEBBIE BREY: It’s crazy. I look at the numbers and I’m like, how the heck did we do that? So, we do need to grow that next generation of change agents, instructors, and coaches.

LESLIE MORSE: So, as you think about this investment, starting the Center of Excellence around Lean and Agile, what’s your hope for the future? If we could get in a time machine and jump five years down the road, what would you want to see happening?

DEBBIE BREY: So, what I’d like to see is every manager and executive at Boeing being a Lean, Agile teacher, mentor. So, that we don’t have to have coaches, but that’s what our leaders do, and they know it and it’s ingrained and it really unlocks our ability to go out and be innovative.

And Boeing’s got a lot of great, innovative ideas. Five years ago I wouldn’t have said the same thing about my company, but we’re really looking at different markets and different opportunities to help change and connect the world, really.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s so amazing. And I think listening to you talk about this, I’ll kind of bring it back to that comment I made earlier around just the confidence, and you’re so grounded in speaking about this, and the fact that you stuck through it, in what you called the dark age of Agile, I think is a real calling to Agile practitioners out there because it happened to me, right?


LESLIE MORSE: We went through an Agile transformation on an eCommerce team that I was a part of. In the moment, there were some leadership changes where it was clear that this might not be sticking. The amount of turnover, and I was one of the early departers. I was just like, “No, I’ve gotten a taste of this and I don’t want to go back.”

But there actually is something to that, the fortitude to stick it out. to be there for that Renaissance and when it comes back, having a different type of life and passion and depth to it. Because I hear that coming through in the way you tell the story.

DEBBIE BREY: And you really do, you have to … I’ve had several times where I’ve been so low and down and you just have to turn it around and go, “Okay, I’m not going to let that get me. I’m going to continue. What’s next?”

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And speaking of what’s next, I want to talk just for a few minutes. And normally I get into this a lot on the Women in Agile podcasts, but I want to lean into this with you, Debbie.


LESLIE MORSE: What’s next for you in terms of growing your journey as an Agilest and as a change practitioner?

DEBBIE BREY: Well, as well demonstrated by this summit here, I’m probably going to become a little bit more vocal in the community. I would love to launch a Women in Agile group in Seattle.

LESLIE MORSE: Excellent.

DEBBIE BREY: I haven’t had the capacity right now.

LESLIE MORSE: I bet we can enroll some allies to help you with that.

DEBBIE BREY: All right. So everybody who’s listening to this, who’s in Seattle, who wants to do Women in Agile, let’s do it.

LESLIE MORSE: Excellent.

DEBBIE BREY: Contact me and let’s do it. And I think that’s it. I want to take what I’ve learned and be able to inspire other people to do it and just not give up. And that’s it.

LESLIE MORSE: I love it. And I’m so, so honored to have sat down and had this conversation with you and helping to get your voice out more into the community. I think there’s so much richness in the storytelling of what’s happening from the people living and breathing it as employees in these large enterprises today. Those are the stories other people need to hear, to know what’s truly possible.

DEBBIE BREY: Yeah, and I’m just honored to be here and be able to tell my story.

LESLIE MORSE: Excellent. Well, Debbie, thank you for sitting down and talking with me today. It’s been a joy.

DEBBIE BREY: No problem. Thank you.

LESLIE MORSE: You’re welcome. And thank you for listening to this episode of Agile Amped. If you learned something new, we invite you to tell a friend, coworker, or client about this podcast, and you can always go online to subscribe and hear more inspiring podcast conversations.