Tuesday 11 November 2008

My agile construction yard

I have been successfully practicing agile for quite a while now, and I've always believed that, given a pragmatic application of the principles behind it, it can be used to manage any process. Mind you, having only ever tried to deliver software with agile, this remained personally unproven. Gauntlet?

So I figured that if I am going to keep going on about it, I am going to have to put my money (and my house) where my mouth is. So I did, and this is the story...

The requirements

I wanted a bunch of work done on my house - extending a room, replacing the whole fence line, building a new retaining wall, laying a stonework patio, new roof drainage, building a new BBQ area, and some interior layout changes - and I thought it's now or never. I spoke to the builder and told him all about agile, lean thinking, project management practices like SCRUM and XP, and how it can benefit both of us in delivering House 2.0. He asked if he could speak to the responsible adult who looks after me. "Great, a waterfall builder" I say to myself as I try not to be offended by the 'responsible adult' quip.

But we strike a deal; he's going to do big up front drawings and a quote, and we'll proceed my way at my own risk and responsibility. The game is on.


The first thing we do is run through all the things I want done, which ones are most important to me, and roughly how I want them all to look. I guess you could call this the vision setting. Then my contractor asks me the few big questions; the materials I want to use, budget, and when I want it ready by. He makes some high level estimations on time and cost, based on which I rearrange my priorities to get a few quick wins. We have a backlog.

The project

Our first 'sprint' is the fence line. We come across our first unknown already - the uprights that hold the fence into the ground are concreted in and we either have to take twice as long to tear them out, or build the new fence on the old posts. Direct contact throughout the process and transparency of information ensures that we make the decision together, as customer and delivery team, so that neither of us is left with the consequences of unforeseen situations. I want the benefit of new posts so I'm quite happy to eat the costs put forward.

Next we do the retaining wall, and we have a quick standup to go over the details - we need to decide on a few details up exact height and the type of plants growing across the top. Since the fence has been done I go with some sandy bricks that match the uprights and the wall is constructed without incident. The next thing we're going to tackle is the BBQ area; however, beyond that the roadmap calls for the room extension and so we need to apply for planning consent in order to get the approval in time. Agile doesn't mean no paperwork and no planning, it means doing just enough just in time for when you need it.

Now we hit our first dependency - the patio must be laid first before we can build the BBQ area. That's cool, and through our brief daily catchups, we come up with an ideal layout and pick out some nifty blocks. A bit of bad weather slows down the cementing phase slightly, but we're expecting that - this is England. We use the opportunity to draft some drawings for the room extension and get the consent application lodged.

It's BBQ building time. I've been thinking about it since we started the project, and I decided I wanted to change it. The grill was originally going up against one wall, but wouldn't it be much more fun if it was right in the middle so everyone could stand 360 around it and grill their own meat? You bet it would. We built a couple of examples out of loose bricks (prototypes?) and then settled on a final design. It takes a bit more stone than the original idea, but it's way more awesome.

Then our project suffered it's first major setback - the planning consent process uncovers that a whole lot of structural reinforcement will be needed if they're going to approve the extension. That pretty much triples the cost of adding the extra space. Is it still worth it at triple price? Not to me. Lucky we didn't invest in a lot of architect's drawings and interior design ideas, they'd be wasted now (specifications are inventory and inventory is a liability). So we start talking about alternatives, and come up with a plan to create the new space as storage and wardrobes - not exactly what I had in mind up front, but at less than half the original cost it still delivers 'business value'.

The retrospective

So how did it all turn out? Well, as a customer, I felt involved and informed throughout the whole process, and the immediate future was usually quite predictable. Throughout the project I had the opportunity to adjust and refine my requirements as I saw the work progress, and I always made informed tradeoffs whenever issues arose. I am happy, the builder is happy, and I got exactly what I wanted - even though what I really wanted ended up quite different to what I thought I wanted when we started.

Oh and if anyone wants a good building contractor in Surrey...

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