OKRs at DB Systel – An interview with Doris Leinen

Table of Contents

As pioneer of agile collaboration and a new working world, Doris Leinen drives the development of DB Systel. In the course of her work in the goal and management team, DB Systel for the first time introduced the OKR framework. How this happened and how the team approached the implementation, Doris reveals in the Workpath Magazine.

If you want to know more about the OKR framework, take a look at our article "Objectives and Key Results (OKR) - A Definition"

Doris, we are very happy to talk with you today for our Workpath Magazine. You together with your colleagues at DB Systel introduced a new, agile goal and management system. How did you become aware of OKRs? What was your first impression?

Since 2013 there is a team at DB Systel that is responsible for the goal and management system. Next to the economic goals, they also take care of strategic topics. The focus here until now, next to transparency through a KPI-report, has been on quarterly reviews with the management. Since 2014, DB Systel is developing the vision of a network organization and since march of this year the 100th Team is on its way of transformation.

As goal and management team we of course asked ourselves: “How does our management system of the future organization look like?” Because the classical hierarchy will no longer exist, new roles will be created and responsibilities will be distributed anew.

In this sense, we questioned and developed the status quo. In close collaboration with our stakeholders concrete first ideas materialized. And guess what? We were very close to what constitutes OKRs. We actually just discovered the method on our way and then made use of it.

“The keyword is TOGETHER. And a healthy mix of top down and bottom up brought us success.”

You in general worked very early with the topics agility and the future of your organization. Can you describe what basic conditions you created? Where you maybe earned and obtained some freedoms from the DB corporation so that agile transformation and now also the OKR implementation can succeed?

Discover more OKR articles

DB Systel is on its way from an IT service provider to becoming a digital partner of the Deutsche Bahn. On this way we questioned a lot of things and are in close coordination with the committees. The keyword is TOGETHER. And a healthy mix of top down and bottom up brought us success. At the same time we created the conditions that touched upon the actual regulations of the corporation and we negotiated them anew. The focus is on HR tools but we were also rethinking topics revolving around governance. In doing so, we took an iterative approach and surpassed our expectations greatly.

The basis of all this is grounded in the culture of the organization. Transparency and trust are indispensable for success. The method itself is - as so often - very simple. The living of the values is quite the opposite though. Especially when times get difficult, people tend to fall back into old habits. We are on the way of experimentation and should be aware that especially now positive role models and sustainability are very important. Away from sanctions and partial optimization towards learning and sustainable comprehensive improvement. Oftentimes it is the collaboration that makes or breaks success. For the management that means to mentally move away from measuring towards shedding light on successes and also celebrating. Specifically of those people that generate value.

In which strategic context are OKRs placed in your organization? That means, how is you goal system embedded in your vision, mission, overall concept, key values, long-term strategies and daily doing or project management?

OKR at the moment are the management method. Since our team together with the stakeholders on the one hand develop the company and on the other hand are responsible for management, we offer a broad know-how to the teams. In the joint workshops we develop with the units their respective OKR sets, create transparency and compare it with the strategy. Irrespective of If that is in the classical or network-like working world. At the same time we embed and discuss the results in the contexts of existing meeting structures, meaning regular team meetings or jours fixes.

In doing so, OKRs are integrated in the agile daily work routine and support teams focussing and prioritizing their topics. Thus, it is important that we reflect all topics that are currently on the desks of the team members also in the OKRs. Concretely: what we don´t reflected in the OKRs, won´t be worked on. The teams are supported by us in this phase.

You are at DB Systel also responsible for the training and onboarding of the teams that just started to work with the OKR process. From your perspective, what are the most important elements or formats here? How do you succeed in introducing employees to the process?

Next to the vision, mission and company objectives (MOALS) we have developed our conception of humans and organizational values. Here, we involved the employees. Particularly with regard to our cultural change that is extremely helpful. The reason behind fear and scepticism often are the prior experiences, which of course everybody has made. And there is the crux of the matter. Here, everybody personally, as part of the whole, has to participate in contributing to and creating change. I think it can only become a success this way.

"I personally still opt for a good balance between bottom up and top down. Therefore, my advice is: actively involve your employees in the planning and design."

Were there any initial doubts among your colleagues at the introduction? How do you succeed in convincing all employees?

That is our current challenge. We are on train of establishing OKRs on a broader footing and are currently pursuing an approach of voluntariness. With that we want to set the process in motion. We are that much convinced of the method that we believe in whoever tests it and experiments with it, will understand its value and act as pioneer. The experience with the teams confirms this.

What advice would you give to an organization that wants to introduce OKRs and that is completely at the beginning?

In my opinion, the stage of maturity of the organization is decisive. Just the intention to introduce a new method to improve management will not suffice. More important is a thorough analysis and examination of the attitude aimed for. I personally still opt for a good balance between bottom up and top down. Therefore, my advice is: actively involve your employees in the planning and design.