Modern Woodmen: Mainframe Migration lessons learned and key advice

August 16, 2019

Modern Woodmen of America is one of the largest fraternal benefit societies in the United States, with more than 750,000 members. Total assets reached $16.17 billion in 2017.
The organization had been running its OS2200 mainframe for over 50 years, and, using internal development staff, developed its own COBOL applications and built custom-made solutions for their business enabling them to automate many processes and deliver some insurance products without human intervention.

However, with the lack of new COBOL resources entering the market, Modern Woodmen recognized the risk of staying locked-into their current environment and development language. The legacy platform was restrictive and therefore they decided to migrate to a Windows environment.

Large migration projects you only do once in a lifetime and need to get them right, the first time around. Large, complex and a first always means that there are lessons to be learned. Same with Modern Woodmen. The 3 major ones that turned out to be the critical success factors of the project were:

1) Solve only the problems that need to be solved
During a complicated and lengthy project like this one, there is a myriad of problems to be solved but it is very important to focus on which problems need to be solved, which ones matter the most to the success of the project.

2) Assign owners to critical problems
This one took Modern Woodmen a long time to learn.
The core migration team consisted of around 15 people that were all experts in their area. Most of them were supervisors or managers that worked with a sub-team to work on our projects and help solve all our problems. However, that core team suffered from an intense love of solving every problem. No matter what their expertise was, they would jump on every problem. This would derail the project, sometimes for days, usually for weeks and occasionally for months.
Eventually the project team decided to pick the problems that really mattered and assign a dedicated person with the appropriate expertise to these problems. They made this person responsible for solving the problem and reporting to the rest of the core team so they did not spend all the time in their day thinking about it and wasting a whole lot of energy on something that they could not contribute to. This approach led to a much more efficient way of working. Critical problems had an owner, a plan, a solution and in the end to the results we envisioned.

3) Over-communicate ahead of change
Modern Woodmen is a company where everyone wants to be involved. When the core team started this project they told all of their managers: “you don’t have to worry about us, this is similar but not the same, it is like for like, all your business processes are going to be OK, don’t worry about us”, and then they went dark. Their project team moved to a separate building and probably did not tell anybody anything about the migration for about a year. That was a giant mistake. A lot of time had to be spent to address rumors and to reassure people.
A communication plan was created. Monthly meetings were set for all department managers. Each of them was invited to whether they felt they were impacted by the migration project or not. And that changed just about everything. These monthly meetings gave the department managers 2 things they needed to know about:

  • What is the actual status of the project, not the sugar-coated version but a realistic view. We needed them to stay positive with us.
  • What do they have to do with their team, what is their operations area.
    They had to come back the following month for the next action to be taken. This made them part of the communication plan. By making sure they knew what the plan was, enabled the project team to execute the go live.

“Over-communicated every step in the project so everyone throughout the organization knew exactly what was coming, what was working and what we were working on. That made all the difference in the world.”
Nathan Bignall, Modern Woodmen Migration Project Manager

Read more about the Modern Woodmen migration project here