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A software renaissance at the world’s largest furniture manufacturer

1x per weekincreased software releases from 1x per year to 1x per week

50%fewer keystrokes to structure a quote

40 hourswork per week eliminated for dealers

How Steelcase adopted cloud native practices and technology to reconceive a core business application

VMware Tanzu Labs

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Since the founding of Steelcase over 100 years ago, its products have embodied an ethos of user centricity. In fact, one of the company’s first patents was for a metal wastepaper basket designed to prevent fires caused by office workers using wicker baskets while smoking. The user-centered principles that led to metal baskets continue to inform Steelcase’s products and contribute to the company’s rise as the largest furniture manufacturer in the world.

Steelcase now specializes in helping “customers create the unique workspace environments they need to drive their own innovation and growth,” explained Gail Moutrey, VP of Global Brand Management and Workplace Innovation. Today, Steelcase is sold by hundreds of dealers across the globe and furnishes offices as varied as the companies it serves—with furniture, technology, and architectural solutions that are almost infinitely customizable. “Every human on earth could buy 66 million different products from us before there would be a duplicate,” said Steelcase CIO Steve Miller.

People sitting in an office.

To help customers design and order these custom solutions, Steelcase and its dealers have relied on a massive application built in the 1980s by Hedberg Data Systems, a subsidiary of Steelcase. The Hedberg application provides quoting and order management as well as various functionalities to help dealers manage their business. According to Miller, Hedberg processes in excess of $5 billion worth of invoices for Steelcase dealers annually.

“It has been the workhorse of our business,” said Miller. “This is how our business flows in. It’s been the face of Steelcase to our dealer community for decades.”

While Hedberg has been refreshed from time to time, the monolithic application system is based on decades-old technology, making development difficult and slow. And while some of the platform is in the cloud, much is not, requiring dealers to maintain on-premises hardware and software.

There are lots of companies that can develop stuff for us. But what we wanted was a transformation in the way we work. And that was where we felt VMware was especially suited as a partner.”
Steven Miller, CIO

“Dealers need a technology that is able to keep pace with rapidly changing business requirements as they face pressures like shifting market conditions and higher customer expectations,” said Brian Saum, IT Director, Customer Engagement at Steelcase. “It takes us the better part of 9–12 months to get out a major release to all of our dealers...This is not at all a pace that's going to allow our dealers to stay competitive down the road.”

Steelcase saw an opportunity to not only change the software platform, but also improve the way its engineers build software. “We've really hit the point where it's time for a rebirth,” said Miller. “It was about bringing together both the practice changes and the software changes in order to sustain a continuous innovation of the [Hedberg] platform.

“There are lots of companies that can develop stuff for us. But what we wanted was a transformation in the way we work. And that was where we felt [VMware] was especially suited as a partner. Unleashing the team to deliver results quickly was really at the heart of what we needed to do.”

Typing on keyboard. Office worker smiling.

New skills and cloud native tools mean fresh possibilities for a decades-old application

Steelcase engaged with VMware Tanzu Labs in a 15-week engagement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The engagement centered on enabling the Hedberg team in modern development practices such as pair programming and test-driven development (TDD). Simultaneously, they applied this hands-on learning by building a new application, referred to as H2, to replace the old Hedberg system.

“There was a lot of synergy right from the beginning … we were speaking the same language. And what was really great was the way the [VMware] team had a plan,” said Miller. “They had a process that worked and it was very complementary to the process Steelcase uses with our customers. So it felt right.”

Business Director for Hedberg, Brian DeRoo recalls the one-on-one nature of the VMware experience: “When you go to a Tanzu Labs engagement, every person you send is paired with somebody from Tanzu Labs. So as you go through this transformational journey, you've always got someone alongside you—whether you're the product manager, designer, a software engineer, you've always got someone coaching you.”

Moving to public cloud was also an important part of the engagement with VMware. So Tanzu Labs practitioners taught the Steelcase team how to use modern developer tools like Spring Boot and technologies like VMware Tanzu to accelerate the shift to a cloud native architecture. The new H2 applications run on Tanzu Application Service atop Microsoft Azure.

Another goal of the Tanzu Labs engagement was helping Steelcase reimagine what Hedberg could become. VMware practitioners showed the Steelcase team how to conduct in-depth user research and perform structured exercises to help identify what to prioritize and build first. Through these processes, the group determined that one core function of the Hedberg application needed to be tackled first: building and editing quotes for customer orders, a complex process compounded by the sheer number of customizable product combinations.

When you go to a [Tanzu Labs] engagement, every person you send is paired with somebody from [Tanzu Labs]. So as you go through this transformational journey, you've always got someone alongside you.”
Brian DeRoo, Business Director for Hedberg

Fast release cycles and user-centered design give dealers a new competitive edge

Equipped with new development skills, fast, flexible tools, and a jumpstart at Tanzu Labs, the Hedberg team is steadily developing and transitioning from the old Hedberg to the new H2 applications. “In the environment that we're working in and the way that we're working, we're pushing out updates every week—and with the goal of doing it even more frequently,” said DeRoo.

This has significant implications for Steelcase’s business. “In the past when there were changes in the market and we needed to get new capabilities to dealers, it could take 14 months,” said Miller. “Now, we’ve taken that down to a matter of days…that is a radical shift that will lead to business results for both the dealers and us.”

Additionally, using VMware Tanzu Application Service and cloud native practices allows Steelcase to develop and release new capabilities while the legacy system is still in use. “What we've been able to do is develop this in a way that they could run both and that allows them to really develop this in a fast iterative way, which is key,” explained Miller.

Advanced office desk and chair.

Aside from the speed with which the Hedberg team is able to develop software, adopting VMware’s rigorous, user-centered practices has made the new applications easier and more efficient for dealers to use. With a full-time UX designer—something brand new for the Hedberg system—Steelcase now follows a more in-depth process that includes building prototypes for users to try while the product team observes the interaction.

“We get better feedback and we get it a whole lot quicker which is great,” said Brian Walch, Director of IT for Hedberg Data Systems.

The new order and quote system serves as an example of the power of user-centered design for software. Previously, dealers had to navigate through many screens with multiple menus to create an order. The new application significantly reduces the number of clicks, keystrokes and screens for users. Dealers reported that the new system takes half the time and keystrokes to structure a quote compared to the old. One dealer noted that the new application will eliminate a full 40 hours of work per week.

“That's a person that can now be out selling or doing something to serve the customer,” said Miller. “So the initial feelings are that it'll have a pretty dramatic effect on their operational overhead. Our dealer community is so excited.”

Adopting a product mindset brings IT closer to the business

In addition to embracing new technologies and practices, Steelcase made organizational changes to facilitate its new development practices. The IT team is now organized by product teams, improving the relationship IT has with the business side of the company. Processes and roles related to security and quality have also changed with the adoption of TDD and the automation and continuous delivery enabled by Tanzu Application Service.

“Security used to be something that happened as the last step before you launch something,” explained Miller. “Now it's actually built into the process of developing solutions.”

Another organizational change the Hedberg team adopted was a redesign of the workspace. Steelcase and VMware collaborated on redesigning the office to allow for pair programming and colocated teams in one single area. The new Agile Studio makes it easy for team members to communicate, reducing the need for email and meetings, and gives Steelcase firsthand knowledge of creating and working in agile workspaces.

Reflecting on the engagement with Tanzu Labs, DeRoo is proud of what the Hedberg team has accomplished and cited VMware as an enabler of this transformational undertaking:

“Engaging with [VMware] has given us a new foundation to work with—not only from a tools perspective, but from a process perspective, as well. Pairing with folks who had been through this before, who had experience, who could teach us all of these different tools and processes and technologies—that was absolutely huge. There’s just no way we would have piecemealed this together.”

With the success of H2, the Hedberg renaissance has set a new standard for software for the rest of the company, as well as in the industry as a whole. “Hedberg has traditionally been a tool focused on our business in the Americas and from here it is moving forward to become a global tool, which makes it much more of a global industry standard,” said Miller. “To start to become the standard of how this happens in the industry is a pretty big deal to us.”