Learning Tree Instructor Spotlight: Eshan Chawla

Spotlight on Eshan Chawla

Eshan Chawla is an enterprise transformer, course author, and lead instructor at Learning Tree.

Eshan earned a BSc and MSc in physics, as well as an MS in computer science and an MBA. Eshan has worked at Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and MDI. He was part of PMI’s first Program and Portfolio Management Standards Committee. Eshan is a certified instructor for SAFe®, ICAgile, Kanban, APMG, PRINCE2®, AgilePM®, PMP®, Scrum Alliance®, AgileSHIFT®, and DevOps Institute. He partners with Fortune 500 corporations and government agencies in their Lean-Agile transformations. Eshan has coached, mentored, and trained thousands of professionals in Lean-Kanban, Scaled Agile, and Project Portfolio Management.

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Q: Thank you for your time today, Eshan. Let's start with how you got into this work. When did you first become interested in business value optimization? What was the business context at that time?


ESHAN CHAWLA: I went to school for physics and grew up as a big fan of Mr. Spock. When I came to the US, I pursued a degree in computer science and started as a software engineer. At that time, it was the 1990s, and IT (Information Technology) was in a state of infancy. It was very interesting to see how business, which was very mature, and IT, which was fairly immature, worked together.

When I moved from software engineer to project/program manager, I started to see things from an overall business impact standpoint rather than from a purely technical standpoint. During Y2K, I saw the most colossal waste that you could see. It wasn't just millions or billions – I saw trillions of dollars wasted because of all the technical debt incurred over decades. And that made a big impression on me. There was also the Internet boom and bust that occurred as a result. So, the shaping of what happened in the industry, along with my growing up career-wise during that time, helped me understand some of the challenges organizations were facing and what alternative decisions they could have made.


Q: Why did engineering appeal to you?

EC: Well, as I said, I grew up as a physicist, and engineering is just an application of physics. At the beginning, I understood the theory but did not understand the practice. And when I got into the industry, I saw the reverse of that: people were practicing things without understanding the theory. One thing without the other doesn't work as effectively, and when I came to the industry, I noticed that people were not doing things systematically. They didn't understand issues beyond their sphere of work. I thought organizations needed a systematic thought process for doing things.


Q: What attracted you to the Lean-Agile approach?

EC: One of the issues I observed during the Internet boom was that things were happening too fast, so people were just shooting from the hip without a plan or process. At the same time, on the flip side, there was this over-architected, overbearing, overengineering way of things.

People started to see a lot of the challenges that come with working in these two extremes and were trying to figure out a happy median. I had a model to look back to because if you look at IT in the '50s and '60s, people who were building things were working together to achieve business goals. It wasn't a game of telephone among many departments/individuals where the message was being lost in translation, which tends to be the way with the traditional/waterfall approach.

There were also many promising tools and approaches being developed, and I thought that Lean-Agile was a great approach that incorporated a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.


Q: What do you think are some of the most important changes that have happened over time?

EC: One of the most important to me is the idea that organizational value is no longer determined only in financial terms – that is an antiquated model built on the fact that companies had physical assets. The new viewpoint recognizes that organizational assets encompass more than just physical ones, such as people and ideas, and that we need a more holistic model to accommodate that. People have started to think in a very different way. Systems thinking, which again comes from engineering, has become prevalent. In systems thinking, you work toward optimizing the whole as opposed to myopically looking at things only from a siloed standpoint.

Another fascinating aspect is the change in the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company. In a study by one of the big consulting firms, they found that the average lifespan has declined from about 70 years to less than 15 years, and it continues to decline. So, we have to now look at things holistically and focus on customer value in this globally disruptive world.


Q: How would you describe the goals of a Lean-Agile approach, and what are some of the tangible elements of that approach?

EC: To me, Lean-Agile really boils down to 2 words: "value" and "waste." Period. So, the questions are: "How do we maximize the value from a customer standpoint?" and "How do we minimize the waste from a customer standpoint?"

Let's think about ordering a pizza. What do we, the customer, value in that transaction? One thing I value is the pizza place getting my order correct. Another is that it tastes good, and yet another is that they delivered it hot and on time. And what's waste to me? A burnt pizza. Incorrect recipe. An oven left on overnight. As a customer, I don't want to pay for those wasted resources. And why should I?

Ultimately all of this comes down to simplicity, and that's what Lean-Agile is trying to do – make things simple so that value is optimized and waste is minimized from the customer vantage point.

Most people who try to implement Lean-Agile transformation get lost in the mechanics of it. They get too focused on the hows without understanding the whys and the whats. And that goes back to the point that I was trying to make about physics. When people are mechanically lost in the minutiae without understanding the whys and whats or connecting with it, they miss the point. You miss the essence of Lean-Agile, which requires the right marriage of whys and whats with the hows.


Q: Do you feel that Lean-Agile has, in general, been able to fulfill its promise, or is there more work to do to unlock the full value of that approach?

EC: I think there are two aspects to successful transformations. One is about the approach, and the other is the implementation of that approach. And you see the full spectrum: Some organizations are getting benefits, while other organizations are actually doing worse than where they were before the transformation. Why? If you implement Lean-Agile transformations by the letter of the law — without understanding the whys and the whats — you will not see the benefits.Organizations are optimized for the traditional way of doing things, which people call the waterfall approach – the plan-driven, predictive approach. So now organizations are saying, OK, we're going to do Lean-Agile — but they are mechanically and myopically doing it without incorporating a deeper understanding of the why and holistically looking at enterprise agility. 

When you go from an optimized waterfall approach to a failed attempt at a Lean-Agile approach, you are actually worse off.

EC: The organizations that are able to implement it in the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law, really understand it, and the implementation is usually successful in those cases. Most likely, they or someone helping them, understands the spirit of business/enterprise agility.

And that's the difference between success and failure. Those companies who understand the application see the incredible benefits of implementing the Lean-Agile approach, and those companies that have not quite understood it and attempt to pigeonhole agility only at a certain team/department level aren't usually as successful.

The reason is because it's the organization as a whole that has to be agile to compete effectively in this disruptive world.


Q: So, the difference between success and failure is not only the depth at which you understand the approach, but also the extent to which you are applying it at your organization?

EC: Exactly. It's a combination of both.


Q: Thinking about Lean-Agile at scale with the understanding that the scale at which it's applied is a crucial element of success, what would you say are the risks or challenges of implementing this kind of approach at scale, and what things can you do to overcome those risks?

EC: Based on the numerous transformations that I've been involved with; it's not just based on one or two things. One of the things that impacts it is whether you are thinking and driving it strictly as a process-driven change or as a holistic change. Change needs to be planned holistically in terms of people, process, structure, strategy, and leadership.

Another challenge is the fact that organizations often don't have the necessary leadership support they need for a successful Lean-Agile transformation at scale. Often people who are driving the change are not quite up to speed on what the change requires, so this is where training and coaching come into play because you want to make sure that people are not overengineering or just going through that process. The people who are helping to spearhead these transformations need to understand the whys and the whats and the hows. If they do, then they can help to make sure things are moving in the right direction.


Q: It's a great point that this isn't just a process change; it really is an organizational change.

EC: Exactly. In the Lean-Agile world, we talk about something called a value stream. The idea is that value doesn't flow from just one role, one specialization, or one department. The customer value that the organization produces flows from numerous entities that are involved in some part of that value stream. The question we are trying to answer is, "How do you optimize the flow of that value across this value stream?"


Q: What are the different frameworks that are available for implementing Lean-Agile at scale?

EC: There are about a dozen or so well-known Lean-Agile scaling frameworks. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) is by far the most popular one.

You also have less, which stands for Large Scale Scrum, and Discipline Agile, which got acquired by PMI (Project Management Institute) a couple of years back. You have Nexus, which is the brainchild of Schweber and again uses scrum. On the other hand, SAFe uses a combination of Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, and systems thinking.

EC: So, there are about a dozen or so models out there that are using a combination of thought processes. The question is, "How do we do that in a Lean-Agile way?"

The idea of scaling Agile is to not only be agile and flexible and nimble at the delivery level or execution level but also at the strategy and operations levels and, ultimately, at the organization level so that we can succeed and beat the competition in this disruptive marketplace.


Q: We've seen a lot of substantial growth in the demand for SAFe training, and as you mentioned, SAFe is currently one of the most popular frameworks. Can you give some context as to why it's so popular right now?

EC: SAFe is a framework that takes the ideas of thought leaders across the board and doesn't restrict itself to one framework like Scrum or Kanban. So that's one thing.

The other thing is that SAFe is fairly comprehensive compared to many other frameworks, as well as flexible. Also, it appeals to both the private and public sectors, so it's being used in a majority of the federal agencies in the US and Fortune 500 companies.


Q: You've spent a lot of time supporting Lean-Agile transformations at scale. Do you have any advice to share with an organization that might be considering implementing SAFe or another scaled Lean-Agile transformation?

EC: I've been involved with numerous transformations, and while no two transformations are the same, there are some universal rules of thumb.

First is that making sure you understand what you're trying to achieve is very important. If you don't have a clear vision of where you are going, then you will never know whether you have arrived there or not.

The second is that while there are aspects you can't control, don't forget that you have to maintain the ability to inspect and adapt when things don't go as planned, and they almost never will.


Q: Thank you very much for sharing your time and insights with us, Eshan.

EC: Thank you.

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