December 28, 2014

What Detroit Housing Teaches About Agile Prioritization

Written by CC Pace Lean/Agile Team

Does your organization have a lot on their plate?

Are resources spread too thin?

Have you heard the phrase “stop starting, and start finishing”, but aren’t sure how it applies to your organization?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, here is an analogy to help you describe why prioritizing and concentrating on fewer projects first is important. It’s okay to not start everything at once.

In Detroit entire blocks of houses sit empty.

Imagine we have formed a consortium to buy a cul-d-sac of houses. We have a fixed budget. The houses all require work before they can be rented or sold. Our vision is to do the work, and start receiving an ROI on our investment by selling, or renting the houses. Our budget includes money for the initial purchase, and repairs.

Option 1:

We divide and conquer. We look at each house and identify everything the houses will need to make them wonderful homes. Each of is assigned one or more houses to work on. We utilize our skills, and hire contractors to backfill our team to get the work done. We have more houses than project managers/leads, so we must spread ourselves out across many houses. It is a slow process, but all houses should be done in 12 – 13 months. Then our inspectors (QA’s & PO’s) will need to sign-off on all the houses, we will need to remediate any issues, and then finally we can start to do something with everything we finished.

While we are working on the houses, our specialist like plumbers and electricians are spread thinly across the project too. It is hard to schedule their time, and we have down time while waiting for them. Even worse than the down time, is the fact that while they are running from house to house trying to get things done, they aren’t as thorough as they should be. We find ourselves calling them back, cleaning up after them, or just don’t know that something was missed until the property is inspected. They suffer from task switching and trying to make everyone happy at the same time.

Everyone is stressed, progress is hard to see. Leadership pushes for more, and the teams become dissatisfied with their job.

Option 2:

We rank the houses by Return on Investment (ROI) or Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF – considering job size, sunk costs, and cost of delay), and all of us begin work on the house(s) with the biggest ROI/WSJF. When the first house is finished we can immediately sell or rent it, moving on to each subsequent house completing them with dedicated resources until all houses are complete. Worst case, the last house is not complete for 12 or 13 months, however we have been receiving money from the first house for 10 months, and each subsequent house as completed. By the time we get to the last house, we may decide just to bulldoze it and build a park.

We welcome change. More importantly, we can choose to change. We haven’t wasted any work identifying what will be done ahead of time. We identify what we need for each house “Just-in-time”. If there is a new “green” lighting system available, we can choose to change the plans and use it. If we decide to add heated flooring in a particular area of the next house, we can. Furthermore, we can decide if it makes sense to include these items in other houses based on the impact to just one house.

Our rework on each house is minimal. Our teams get faster at doing their work the longer they work together as a team. Everyone sees constant progress towards a shared end goal.

We have our supporting infrastructure in place. We know who is responsible for the work, and can trust everyone to do their best. The team gains positive momentum, and direct feedback. Everyone sees progress. We follow Lean and Agile Principles to ensure our teams are happy and fulfilled with their job.

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