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As agile as a pipe repair

February 16, 2017

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Our guest blogger is agility expert Martin von Weissenberg who writes about agile operations that are winning ground in the software industry and could even benefit large-scale construction project.

In the past few years, both the software industry and the construction industry have committed themselves to colossal projects busting both budgets and schedules – as we all have read in the media. The software industry has been looking for solutions through agile software development. I think it’s great that the construction industry also has begun to develop new, smarter ways of doing thing. A recent example is Fira’s two-week pipe repair, which has received a lot of media attention and triggered a public debate.

When Fira Palvelut announced that they were going to do a pipe repair in two weeks, experts in the field reacted with disbelief. Can’t be done! What about drying time? Will it be the workers who ultimately pay for it? The attitudes to the two-week pipe repair says a lot about how cemented old routines are in any industry: This is how we’ve always done it and will always do it, there’s no way to do it quicker. How about rethinking the whole process?

In the software industry, agility has been a buzzword for quite a few years. There is a need for adaptive processes where the threshold for launching a project is low, even though the ultimate result is not quite certain. A feature of agile planning and operations is that such details will be specified during the process. This is a point where software development and pipe repairs are very much different: at the start of a pipe repair project, you already know that you are going to get a pipe repair. It will not be converted into reroofing somewhere along the way. Whereas in agile software development, you may start off by designing a web application and end up with a mobile application, if it meets customers’ needs better.

Because a pipe repair is always a pipe repair, agility – in the software-development sense of the word – will never be possible in the construction industry. Fira Ketterä does have some agile features, which in the software industry would be called LEAN. Fira has realised that residents get mostly annoyed with the inconvenience of a renovation, including vacating the flat. If the inconvenience lasts for months, the residents may have to rent a place and take their furniture, television set and family heirlooms along. Two weeks can be spent in a hotel or at your grandparents’ place. Or why not take a vacation trekking in Lapland or basking in the sun in Thailand?

The common features of the construction and software industries include huge and complex projects involving several teams. Logically, similar problems may have similar solutions:

  • Trust is born out of commitment to common goals. The people involved in the project must want to do it right the first time and on schedule, because it makes financial sense.
  • Break up the project. The two-week pipe repair is not planned based on the whole pipe stack, but on each bathroom.
  • The work is carried out in smaller assignments with real-time check-ups. If there is a delay, it will be noticed within an hour and fixed immediately. Otherwise, such hiccups may go unnoticed.
  • So, fix problems as soon as they’re noticed. With time, repair costs may rise tenfold or hundredfold if you have to rip out and rebuild.
  • Lots of communication. With workers working on each on their own segment of the project, it’s possible that a problem won’t be noticed until the full puzzle is assembled.
  • Clients must dare to buy the project in a new way. Fira Ketterä is a totally unintuitive solution compared to the conventional way of doing things in the renovation business.
  • The management has to take a look in the mirror. They have to make sure that the workers have an easy time doing things right. Moreover, the corporate culture must allow open discussions of problems and a constructive response to any issues.

I am an organisational agility trainer and coach. In software projects, the common opinion is that it’s enough if the ICT department or software engineering team know about agility. It’s not enough. The main obstacle for agile operations is not a team or an individual. It’s the management. Fira Palvelut’s two-week pipe repair was a success because people at Fira acknowledged that the issue was not the employees but the management. An agile organisation must have an agile management and an agile culture.

 Martin von Weissenberg

CSC certified agility expert

agile42 Finland Oy

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