When people think about the largest toy production centers in the world, their thoughts turn to Fisher-Price, Nerf, and Mattel. When they are asked who is largely responsible for distributing these toys, the response is Amazon. However, nobody considers that there is one facility for both producing AND distributing toys around the world, and that northern-based facility handles an unimaginable volume in an incredibly compressed time frame - one evening once a year.

Before you think about how stressful the holidays are for you, think about the thousands of elves that work around the clock at the North Pole to ensure that Santa can meet his deadline of December 24th to deliver toys to over a billion children around the world. It's a daunting task, to say the least, and if it's not managed properly, it could result in a complete disaster.

Recently, Ernie Elf, the Head of the Christmas PMO, completed his SAFe Scrum Master certification, and he began to think about how to apply this methodology to managing the North Pole's supply chain. Historically, the elves operated under a somewhat loose hybrid Agile/Waterfall approach, but this often led to "scrummy waters" and didn't account for unpredictability. Ernie felt it could be beneficial to have multiple iterations throughout the year to test the changing requirements rather than continue with the make-or-break final delivery date that had existed for thousands of years.

Additionally, Ernie had witnessed first-hand that the elf teams were working in silos. For example, the Barbie Team and the American Girl Team were not meeting to gain efficiencies and share lessons learned, despite working almost side by side and sharing virtually the same audience. Ernie wanted to provide both teams with the environment and support they needed to encourage collaboration and reflection on a regular basis to become more effective.

Ernie decided to start with two-week iterations that each focused on producing a subset of toys. The production culminated with demoed "deliveries" to various parts of the world using the North Pole Delivery Simulator. Each Toy Team had an Elf Scrum Master, who coached and protected the members of the team, facilitated Scrum events, and helped to remove impediments. The Development Team included a group of elves who were responsible for building and testing. These elves were the cream of the crop - organized, accountable, and collaborative. Cranky elves were not invited to participate. Ernie only looked for elves who embraced change, were proactive, and self-motivated. Santa acted as the Product Owner for each iteration, defined the scope and requirements, and served as the single voice for the customer - the children.

The 12 teams who participated in these iterations were part of an Agile Release Team and involved in a 10-week Program Increment that concentrated on launching a dry run of Santa's deliveries. One of Santa's apprentices guided a sleigh, pulled by reindeer-in-training, to fly to selected destinations and simulate deliveries in a live setting. These teams were aligned to the common mission and led by a Chief Scrum Master known as the Release Train Engineer (RTE). Everyone involved in the Program Increment met for a two-day Program Increment Planning session where elves wrote their SMART objectives and created the Program Board featuring these objectives, as well as dependencies, risks and milestones.

During the subsequent Iteration Planning, the Scrum Masters created a backlog of toys that needed to be produced so Santa could prioritize based on demand for each toy. The backlog was refined regularly to ensure flexibility if the demand shifted. The acceptance criteria were defined to solidify expectations and establish a basis for solution design, focused on producing toys that function properly and safely. Delivery time was also included in the acceptance criteria, meeting a duration that was agreed upon through estimating exercises with the entire team.

Each Elf Scrum Master facilitated a Daily Stand-Up in which members of each Development Team came together and shared what their teams completed yesterday, what they will work on today, and any impediments that stand in their way. Scrum Masters also participated in the Scrum of Scrums to update the RTE on team progress and the status of mitigating any program impediments.

At the end of each iteration, the team gathered for an Iteration Retrospective to review and improve their processes before the next run. The goal for each iteration was to meet the previously defined acceptance criteria, agree that all toys have been built, confirm all standards have been met, and ensure Santa's satisfaction with the delivery time. All elves were given the opportunity to share any efficiencies gained as they prepared for the next iteration and if they thought the iteration was successful.

As the North Pole residents prepare for the real thing, Ernie feels confident that the SAFe transformation was a resounding success. His fellow elves feel empowered and confident, and there has been much less stress heading into the final weeks before Christmas Eve. Even Santa seems more jolly than usual!