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How the pandemic drove digital transformation at TUI

Philipp Böschen DevOps Evangelist, TUI Group
Christian Rudolph Head of DevOps Transformation, TUI Group

In March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, operations came to a halt at European tour operator TUI. We immediately lost all of the developers who worked on contract—one-third of our total development workforce. All ongoing projects stopped, and many systems were shut down entirely.

But the crisis also drove our IT and business teams closer together and forced us to re-evaluate our situation. With a newfound focus, we accelerated our ongoing digital transformation, cutting operating costs by 70% in just three months.

We were able to leverage what was initially an existential crisis into an opportunity to advance our digital transformation. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way that you can apply to your own digital transformation.

In a crisis, setting priorities is key

Our primary goal was survival. With a 98% drop in business revenue, we had to improve at every possible point in our supply chain. With this in mind, our top-level management set three priorities that guided everything we delivered from that point onward.

1. Cost savings

We immediately worked to reduce operating costs to an absolute minimum. We shut down everything that was not essential to continue the business and stopped all existing projects.

All our IT teams joined a task force that worked to identify any workloads that we could shut down to minimize operating costs. We also identified opportunities to reduce the resource footprint for essential systems, in light of dramatically lower demand for tourism and travel.

Overall, we reduced our net burn rate by 70% in just three months, a major achievement that was possible only because our IT and business teams—driven by a single, joined goal—collaborated closely.

2. Make sure our customers could return home

Our second global priority was to ensure every one of our customers who were on a tour at the time could safely return home.

For this to become reality, our teams made a big push to support new features that provided better and more accurate information to customers and to ensure that the systems needed for customers to return home safely were in top shape.

3. Keep essential systems alive

Even at a full stop, an enterprise of our size—TUI is a $9.7 billion company—must have some systems running. So we needed to ensure that those systems were fit for this new environment.

For example, our systems had to be able to cope with the mass cancellations we received during the initial crisis period. Suddenly, our reservation systems had to deal with load profiles extremely different from what they normally handled. Again, our IT and business teams had to collaborate to improve existing processes and make those systems as efficient as possible.

The power of focus

During the initial shock period, the entire organization was focused entirely on those three priorities. The positive impact of that tight focus on delivery quality and speed can't be overstated. It was breathtaking to see what we could accomplish, even with only two-thirds of our development team available.

Because of the extremely limited resources available to work on new initiatives or features, we had to get creative with our solutions—and that led us to automate many of our existing processes to a much greater extent than we would have in normal times, in an effort to free up resources. More free resources meant more ideas could flow and less time was needed to deal with problems that were solved through automation.

Sometimes IT can face confusing or conflicting goals coming from the top of the organization. During a crisis things change. When everyone is focused on the same top goals, day-to-day interactions become much clearer. This reduced our need to explain a lot of the context for our decisions, since everyone was already operating within the same high-level context.

Overall, our communication improved considerably.   

Lessons learned

The pandemic was a valuable experience from which we continue to draw lessons. While many of those lessons reinforced our existing beliefs, quite a few new were new for us.

1. Drive a select few goals throughout the entire company to produce huge benefits

We were reminded of just how vital it is that all parts of the company work together on a compact list of common priorities. In very large organizations, IT often faces a diverse set of goals and priorities from different areas of the business. When you lack common goals across the business, that can lead to fragmentation and ultimately conflicting interests inside of the company.

2. Limit work in progress to achieving peak productivity inside your teams

It's surprising how few resources you actually need when everyone on the team works on the same thing. It's also key to make sure the team works on one project at a time until it's finished before going on to the next item on the list.

3. Optimize operations to accommodate a remote workforce

Once everyone went to fully remote work, we found some glaring deficiencies in our legacy back-end processes—so we took that as an opportunity to move those processes into the digital age to better accommodate remote workers.

For example, we automated many common service requests in the area of user management and upgraded our central VPN system to improve user experience and productivity. None of these changes would have ever been prioritized and executed if we weren't forced to suddenly deal with a completely remote workforce.

4. Take lessons learned about optimizing for remote collaboration back to the office

After being forced into a situation where we had a fully remote workforce, we found that collaboration among our internationally dispersed teams got a lot better. Why? Because while we had always used remote conferencing and collaboration tools, we always had groups inside our offices who sometimes accidentally isolated their remote colleagues by collaborating among themselves outside of the regular conference calls. During the pandemic, with everyone working remotely, that didn't happen.

We worked to make the quality of online meetings better, and we came to realize just how the quality of a remote meeting goes way down when you have a group of people physically sharing a phone connection.

One of the challenges we are currently exploring is how we can keep this newfound quality in our meetings as more people eventually return to our offices around Europe.

The biggest takeaway

In the end, perhaps the biggest learned we learned was this: Never let a good crisis go to waste. The best time to learn about how your company functions—and to push changes through that can make a dramatic difference—is when it is put under stress. It's up to you to take advantage of such situations.

Want to know more? Attend our conference session at DevOps Enterprise Summit Europe - Virtual, where we'll talk more about how we leveraged adversity to digitally transform the business. The conference runs May 18-20, 2021.

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