Scrum for Building Buildings

Since I started to think about Scrum I have known that Scrum can be applied to many more business domains other than software development. By cooking together during the Scrum Training in Vienna, I was able to show that cooks actually use a kind of Scrum in their kitchens. Then I talked to an architect because I wanted to know how they build buildings. Bingo – what a really good architect does is build in a very iterative way.

Alistair Cockburn did a posting Yesterday on the Agile Projektmanagement Yahoo Group about a conversation he had with Joe Wolfe the architect.  Alistair quoted from his book and I got his permission to re-quote it here:

From Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game, 2nd ed by Alistair Cockburn pp 329-300

Start quote – “There might be those of you who think that house construction  is too easy. I was delighted to meet an architect who uses the agile processes in airport design and construction.

On a flight to Boston, I sat next to Joe Wolfe, who answered in reply to my question about his occupation that he designs airport terminals (Terminal E in Salt Lake City and the new  Delta terminal at Logan Airport). Not being able to resist, I asked how he worked.  His reply astonished me because he recounted almost point for point the Crystal Clear methodology except he was doing it with several dozen subcontractors on airport terminal construction! I showed him my draft of Crystal Clear, including the blitz planning technique, and he said, “Oh yes, that’s what we do.”

At the beginning of the project, he collects the subcontractors in a room and has them brainstorm the work they will have to do. They write their tasks and time estimates on sticky notes and post them on a large wall. They sequence the tasks on the wall until they have a sensible initial plan that shows both tasks and dependencies. Someone transcribes the contents of the notes into a computer after the session.

* I asked Joe whether he had a notion of early integration in his project and how he would motivate subcontractors to do that. He said they did do that; the subcontractors get paid at integration milestones, and the cash flow motivates them.

* In reply to my question about contracts, he introduced me to “not-to-exceed plus fixed-fee” contracts (see “Contracts”). “Not to exceed” means that the subcontractor promises not to exceed a certain final amount. “Fixed fee” means that the subcontractor is guaranteed a certain profit if the work takes less time than expected. Thus, the subcontractor’s profit is protected, and the airport’s spending bill is protected.

* I asked him about the agile notion of exposing bad news early – how would he get subcontractors to reveal their problems early? He said that incremental funding motivates them to integrate their work and also to seek help when they run into trouble. An example might be an international shortage of steel.

* I was concerned that even with those incentives, subcontractors are not used to exposing their problems to the people hiring them, and it must take some time to get them used to it. He highlighted that he, as project coordinator, had to deliberately build a climate of trust within the team so that they would reveal their problems.

I was stunned by Joe Wolfe’s account of designing and building  an airport, as it didn’t match my preconceptions at all. As a final question, I asked him if this way of working was normal in the airport-designing industry. He said, no, it wasn’t, but he couldn’t see how anyone could work in any other way and get the terminal completed on time. He added that he had been working this way for several decades, and his clients were so happy that he never had to look for work.” – end quote


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