Structure Low-Code Development to Accelerate Software Delivery

As eCommerce has exploded in the last five years, logistics organizations have needed to fast-track their digital transformation to better support employees and customers. However, traditional software delivery timelines and processes are not conducive to the rapid pace of change required by the industry.

Toll Group, a subsidiary of Japan Post, is one of the organizations responsible for providing end-to-end logistics to 20,000 customers across 150 countries. Over the last six years Stuart Robertson, Head of Digital Technologies for Toll Group, has been charged with building new teams, capabilities, and products and services to support innovation.

“I built a new Center of Excellence around automation and brought in analytics, data science, AI, and also low-code,” said Robertson.

During the 2023 Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo, Robertson shared Toll Group’s uptake with the Mendix low-code development platform which has helped the organization improve both development and business process efficiency.

Accelerating Software Delivery

Of Toll Group’s initial objective, Robertson said, “We wanted to build proprietary software and drive a competitive advantage, but we wanted to be able to do it quickly and cost-effectively.”

“Transport and logistics businesses are pretty thin on margin, so everything is looked at from a cost perspective. What we deliver has to be commercially viable. We need to meet customer and employee experience objectives, but more effectively, we need to differentiate ourselves.”

Toll Group’s IT landscape consists of many systems of record, for processes such as warehouse or transport management, which serve their long-term intended purpose. New software development requests would historically be addressed with traditional programming and waterfall delivery.

“We know traditional software development has its pitfalls and we know that the customer satisfaction rates are extremely low because they don’t tend to get what they need,” Robertson said.

“You can solve for some of that, but I wanted to move away from traditional development because what I also couldn’t do was effectively scale that delivery model to cater to the breadth of needs and use cases within Toll.”

Robertson’s goal was to move towards a model-driven development approach, and in 2021 he set out to find a platform technology that could support this new way of working.

Stakeholder Management in Evaluation

Robertson shared his guidance to evaluate new development platforms and effectively secure organizational buy-in:

  1. Have a strong understanding of your vision and use-cases for the platform.
  2. Make the evaluation exercise collaborative and inclusive.
  3. Take opportunities to show people what is possible versus just telling them.

Toll Group’s low-code evaluation started with desk research of leaders in the Gartner Magic Quadrant. “Within that Magic Quadrant is a whole host of platforms that come into play. Everything from business process management solutions to SaaS solutions that have low-code capabilities. You need to have a strong understanding of your use cases to navigate this,” said Robertson.

“We could have easily gone down the wrong path. Working through that, we did recognize that there were a couple of purpose-built, low-code application development platforms that could build enterprise-grade solutions for both our employees and customers.”

Robertson leaned heavily on the expertise of the market leaders he evaluated, one of which was Mendix. “The approach we took was very collaborative. I leveraged the top vendors that we engaged extensively to get alignment across the organization. What I didn’t want to do was go out and buy a new tool and then just force others to use it,” he said.

During the evaluation process, Robertson included Toll Group experts from IT security, enterprise architecture, development, and the business. The team also conducted workshops and proof of concepts so that team members didn’t just have to take low-code at its word, but could actually see the potential outcome themselves.

“We took a use-case from our divisions and in one week we modeled an app and showed it to them,” Robertson recalled. “They understood and could see what we were doing in real-time, and that there were no surprises. It wasn’t quite a production-ready app, but it was a prototype with simulated data and they could click it and physically see something.”

The team had one last group to sway on their low-code platform investment: parent company Japan Post. Robertson acknowledged that this took a different type of demonstration and prepared a side-by-side evaluation of a traditional development project vs. one with Mendix.

“I showed the traditional development that we did on, our B2C customer portal. It was 2 million lines of code, the CI/CD platform, all of the tools from a technology perspective that are used to enable that plus the skills required to run it,” Robertson said.

Robertson also employed some creative storytelling and analogies to make his case. “I compared it to LEGO. You can pick all of the LEGOs you want and build your own model brick by brick, but that requires a certain level of skill.”

“You need to know what size bricks, what colors, and how to put them together, versus going off and buying a pre-built model that you just need to configure. It comes with all the instructions and right bricks from the start, and you just compile it…. That really helped them to sign off on this multi-million-dollar investment.”

Structuring a Low-Code Capability

In December of 2021 Toll Group selected Mendix as their low-code development platform of choice and quickly had to structure a team to support it. Robertson shared the early focus areas that have set the capability up for success:

  1. Establish a strong platform foundation considering standardization and reuse so that you can scale.
  2. Define how you will measure and demonstrate the value of solutions.
  3. Identify the right use cases that will serve as early quick wins and further your cause.
  4. Continually provide education for your people on what is possible.

“We wanted to get the development of our applications as close to the business as we could,” said Robertson. “We wanted to enable our divisional IT teams with the capability to sit with their business counterparts, model applications, and actually deliver them, but that requires governance and guardrails. We wanted to create a reusable architecture so that people weren’t building and rebuilding the same component multiple times.”

Beyond reusable components, Robertson also invested early on in establishing standard and reusable design system in Mendix. “We’ve built templates on Mendix and those templates are used as a starting point for all of the applications we build. The moment you create a new app it already has all of the design components of the Toll branding. Nobody has to worry about the fonts, color palettes, pick list, radio buttons, or call to action buttons. They’re all taken care of already in the design,” he said.

Robertson also prioritized defining value and measuring adoption. “You can build an app, but if nobody uses it then there’s not much value,” he said. “One of the things we did early on was determine our value metrics. Is it revenue, efficiency, productivity? What is it we want to measure. Part of that is also the user adoption, so we’ve also connected to Google Analytics to see how many people are using the applications.”

Quick Wins Demonstrate Value

During the evaluation period Robertson had established several business areas that could benefit from low-code development, but in the early days of Mendix adoption he was thoughtful on selecting the team’s first projects.

“We knew we had a breadth of use-cases to solve for. We needed customer-facing web applications, progressive web apps for our field staff, and, at some point, mobile applications. These could range from Global Logistics in Asia to Global Forwarding in 28 countries and 500 sites. There’s a fair footprint for us to cater to,” Robertson said.

In mid-January of 2021 Toll Group’s risk and audit team came with a request from their Head of Function who had heard about Mendix. The team was undergoing a significant update to their audit process, meaning that a longstanding and legacy risk management and audit application would no longer meet their needs.

Robertson agreed to help and his team began development in the beginning of February. “By mid-March we had the application up,” he recalled. “This was an application used by our operations managers to effectively document specific risks, what mitigations they were taking, routing that to general managers all the way up to the presidents and managing directors. It was a highly visible application to start with.”

Delivering the application in just 6 weeks was a major accomplishment for the team, and even more impressive was the cost.

Other early wins for Robertson and his team included a progressive web application (PWA) for the automotive logistics division in Singapore and a legal capital review application.

When Toll Group vessels arrive in a port vehicles are unloaded, and historically an employee would look at each car, write down the VIN number, use a camera to take photos of any damage, and note anything required for documentation. That team member would then have to travel back to the office and compile the images and documentation and submit it to the back office.

The new PWA built with Mendix can be accessed on an employee’s mobile device and leverages the phone’s camera as well as optical character recognition (OCR) technology. “Now they can scan the VIN and it will pull up the relevant details right in the app. They can take a picture and submit it right away. No more paperwork between them and the back office, which creates a much more efficient process,” said Robertson. “It was only a few people involved in that process, but it allowed us to build an app really quickly, change how people work, and demonstrate the product.”

In early September 2023 the team launched their legal capital review application which enlists a reusable module built by Toll Group for delegation of authority (DOA). While the approval flow will vary drastically for a warehouse employee looking for $20 to spend on a cleaning product compared to a $200 million investment, there are similarities in the logic.

“This module mirrors a lot of the organization and various approval levels,” said Robertson. “It’s quite complex because the range of requests have different workflows and approvals from a commercial, legal, and financial perspective. But any application we build after legal capital review can use the same core engine and logic for the DOA.”

Toll Group’s emphasis on reusability at the onset of their Mendix adoption has already paid dividends.

The IT team will still do their due diligence to evaluate the investment in certain projects with the traditional route, and so far, Robertson has seen a dramatic variance to the investment with Mendix.

“We have some real-life cases where we are seeing that traditional development will cost significantly more and take a lot more time versus us doing with low-code,” he said. “Recently we had an opportunity come up with our head of security for our warehouses. I took that request out to a vendor and received a quote for close to half a million dollars to build a pretty simple workflow app – which I almost fell off my chair.”

“I had a good conversation with the head of security about what we could do, and I was able to show him what we did with the legal capital review project and how it was similar to his need for something to manage security assessments. The bottom line was that we could do this pretty easily, and at about a fifth of the cost.”

Robertson reiterated that this is a prime example of the importance of continually educating your team members, and doing so by speaking their language. “You can’t stop engaging the business,” he said. “But it has to be in their context, otherwise it’s challenging for them to understand just the technology.”

Engage People by Promoting the Possibilities

Robertson credits education and knowledge-sharing, both within the IT organization and business counterparts, as a key pillar of program success.

“With some of those quick win applications we’ve developed we’ve made a short one or two-minute video demonstrating the apps,” Robertson said.

Another new learning point for the organization was shifting from waterfall to Agile software delivery. With Mendix, Robertson’s team has a clear process and requirements for starting a project to guarantee that it is successful, which includes ensuring that the business assigns a product owner from the start.

“Part of that engagement is an education process about how a project actually runs,” said Robertson, “and this allows us to change how we work and be a lot more collaborative.” Another outlet for promoting the possibilities and success of Mendix is through hackathons. Toll Group has hosted two global Mendix hackathons to date, with their first one in April of 2022 and a second in May of 2023.

“During the first hackathon we only had Mendix for a few months, but we ran a short hackathon to expose people to different ways of working effectively and to educate them on what we can do with the platform,” said Robertson.

“This exercise got people to articulate a problem statement, propose a solution, and think about the value. It also gave them a chance to build an app in one day. That helps us to drive the innovation agenda in Toll, and all of that can only be done if you have a well-established foundation around the platform, including that delivery capability,” Robertson added.

Setting the Stage for Future Success

Having overseen the delivery of 12 low-code applications in the last two years, Robertson offered his advice for those early in their Mendix journey:

  • Get going
  • Select partners wisely
  • Don’t forget your foundations
  • Be prepared to build a capability
  • Have fun!

“Sometimes you just have to get going,” said Robertson. “We knew we would create some technical debt by doing the first few apps without a delivery function… But that allowed us to demonstrate to the business that instead of taking 9 or 12 months, we could help them solve a problem in 6 weeks, and that we could move even more quickly with the right people and processes in place.”

Toll Group continues to place an emphasis on learning and education, now recruiting new graduates to become Mendix developers. Robertson cites about 9 months for a new recruit to become a productive Mendix developer that can build their first application. These team members will start with the basic Mendix Rapid App Development certification and then get paired up with a more senior developer to get hands-on experience.

Additionally, Robertson sees great potential in the organization’s newfound ability to rapidly prototype and test new ideas. “We’re not trying to compete with SaaS and COTS solutions,” he said. “For us, it’s about how we stand up a capability that allows us to differentiate ourselves and be innovative. Something we can do now is produce a prototype very quickly. It might not be fully integrated, but people can see it and react to it and get a better feel for whether it will meet their business requirement. We’re keen to use our Mendix capability to help innovate.”

“The most important thing around platforms is the focus. At the end of the day, it’s not about the technology. What we want to solve and what I want to enable for Toll is new products and services. So effectively what we’re doing is changing how the organization looks at itself,” said Robertson.