Case Study: Building a North Star Operational Model for Engineering and IT

“We want to be known as a tech company that just happens to sell retail products”



When you’ve been in business for many decades, you’ve likely seen several business transformations from your model, operations, and the product itself. That’s where we find many of our customers. 

One of our customers, a Manager of IT Transformation Programs at a well-known retail company that is in the midst of an "everything transformation" has a key role in ensuring IT and Engineering are leading the way. To become truly “tech-first,” the company must modernize every aspect of the business, including how engineering and IT support and enable the rest of the company on this mission to be competitive both in the marketplace and in hiring the best talent. 

The two areas of focus for their transformation into a tech company:

  1. Modernize applications
  2. Leverage data to inform decision-making

Allstacks is a critical part of making this possible by becoming a single source of truth of data for decision-making across all of their IT and Engineering teams. And while the company is only at the beginning of this journey, she’s already got some lessons learned that should be helpful to others looking to modernize the way teams build software. 

The Complexity and Inefficiencies of Work 

Over the life of the company — or any company, rather, there are things that introduce complexity into the organization and create blind spots and inefficiencies in how teams work. Specifically for engineering and IT:

  • Mergers and acquisitions that bring in new people, processes, and tech that are difficult to integrate seamlessly. 
  • Innovations in technology like cloud computing and security protocols require fundamental infrastructure changes where legacy tools and processes slow teams down.  
  • Compounding tech debt that pulls teams away from strategic initiatives. 
  • Autonomy in teams allows them the freedom to work how they want but makes aggregating data and reporting across the organization difficult. 

All of these things together lead to poor visibility into what work is getting done, how well projects are delivered, an inability to report on progress, and ultimately missed commitments which have a significant business impact, and the teams are unable to explain to leadership where things went wrong.

Building the North Star Model for Operational Excellence

Her team is building what they call a “North Star Model” for how product teams should operate and leverage data to make decisions.  This model will ensure that each team has everything needed to deliver value to their customers more quickly. The model is currently being built and piloted by a few teams in engineering and IT before ultimately rolling out to the entire IT organization.  Getting all the teams working cohesively in the same tools and looking at the same data to inform decisions will help them in achieving their shared goals: 

  • Speed time to value 
  • Reliably meet commitments
  • Invest in team member growth 

A single source of truth for engineering and product

The teams knew that their estimates, alignment on prioritization across teams, and clarity on roles and responsibilities were areas of their process that needed the most improvement. They selected Allstacks to be the single source of truth for data-backed insights and forecasting across engineering and IT by bringing together data from multiple tools used.

When starting this journey, there were a handful of concepts or principles they wanted to use as their compass:

  • When introducing new work, bring all the right people to the discussion to ensure work is appropriately scoped and accurately estimated. 
  • Modernize development practices and focus on continuous improvement.
  • Teams should prioritize strategic work that creates value for customers.
  • Answer “What does good look like?” by benchmarking against other technology companies.
  • Introduce and automate security reviews and change advisory earlier in the process.

Lessons learned, early insights, and wins

Six engineering and product teams have already been brought into the platform as part of the North Star Model to operationalize the data in Allstacks into their team ceremonies. Each team had their engineering team lead, scrum master, product owner, dev manager, business analyst, and architect trained on how to do this. 

Though early in their journey, they have already discovered some interesting insights about how they work and some lessons learned: 

Lesson Learned: Building a KPI culture

The goal was to empower teams to take ownership of improving certain metrics on their own by being armed with the right data. The teams wanted that level of visibility but were wary of the data and how it would be used.  To help ease the concerns, the team adapted the rollout approach to first walk the teams through the data in Allstacks rather than set them loose with no direction. When introducing groups to Allstacks, they review the initial data and collaborate on how they can use the insights to uncover areas of improvement and improve workflow. 

Insights Gained: Data-backed proof of areas for improvement 

Allstacks looked at the historical data and immediately quantified some areas where the teams felt they needed improvement but lacked the evidence to narrow down or advocate for change. The teams use this data to answer leadership's questions around how well engineering was doing, where they were getting stuck, and determine where to invest resources:  

  • At what stage do our tickets get held up?
  • How long is work sitting latent? 
  • What is our cycle time? Are we getting better or worse? Why?
  • What is the definition of done? What statuses are used?
  • When will this project be completed? 
  • Do we need more resources? 
  • What are our teams working on? 

Early Wins: Operational Improvements

These early insights have led to early wins into how they operate, including:

  • Delivering a consistent and holistic set of reports and metrics across teams to the leadership team gives them confidence in engineering's outcomes related to the business's strategic initiatives. 
  • Observed an improvement to Cycle Time by 2 days in Q1 over Q4. While this may have been caused by holiday schedules, having access to these insights will help them watch the trends over time and quickly dig into changes before they impact delivery. 
  • Reliably forecast work completion and communicate that with product stakeholders. 
  • Visibility into issues and active contributors every quarter.
  • Identify where process issues and bottlenecks are. 
  • Alignment on the definition of done and using consistent statuses for completed work.  

Seeing this level of impact this early has built a lot of excitement for its leadership and engineering teams. They can now imagine what they will accomplish with more command on their ability to execute going forward. As they learn more about how they work, the North Star Model will continue to evolve. Their ability to control and adapt to future transformations improves to remain competitive both in the marketplace and in hiring the best talent. 

Though the organization is early in its implementation, the word is getting out beyond the model's pilot teams, accelerating its rollout. For example, there are five sprint teams working on a complex strategic initiative that heard about Allstacks and needed it immediately to better convey their progress to stakeholders. When the teams are clamoring for it, you know you are on the right track.

Ready to build your own operational model for your software org? Let Allstacks be your single source of truth. 


Can’t Get Enough Allstacks Content?

Sign up for our newsletter to get all the latest Allstacks articles, news, and insights delivered straight to your inbox.