The Agile Series

Taking The First Steps

Adopting the Agile Approach (Part 1)

In our last post, we talked about Agile, a style of project management born out of the tech industry’s frustration with the outdated, linear, and rigid Waterfall process they inherited from traditional manufacturing. Much like the construction industry today, technology teams were victims to unexpected delays and expenses, despite their efforts to plan ahead.

By adopting Agile, they found they could decrease spending, increase efficiency, and create positive, collaborative environments with their clients.

Sound good?

We thought so, too. Which is why we’re using our next two posts to give you concrete ways to apply Agile principles to your business.

Principle 1: Deliver customer value early and often

A one-year project taking three years, going over budget by 70%, costing $100,000 in overages – these are real numbers from Jay Timmons and Rick Olson, who remodeled their Vancouver, BC, home in 2016.

And our research shows that this happens in nearly half of all construction projects.

Have you ever questioned whether you really needed that new timing belt the mechanic is selling you? But you have to take his advice – not out of trust, but out of fear of ending up stranded on the side of the highway.

It’s similar in a construction project: builders offer clients dozens of different products and services in a language unfamiliar to them. This information imbalance makes the client feel as though they’re at your mercy, which increases fear, decreases trust, and jeopardizes your entire relationship with them.

So, how do you resolve this trust issue from the start of the project?

In a market where nearly half of home renovations go over budget, one way to build trust is to review the project budget in detail with your client upfront. This can be as simple as sharing a live spreadsheet with all up-to-date budget and expense details. Then pair that with a weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly budget-review meetings, during which you can guide your client through trade-off decisions that help keep the overall budget on track.

Further, invest the time to proactively educate clients on dependencies in the build process.

Consider that most homeowners have very little experience in a construction project – and that any experience they had previously might not have been a good one. Start with a simple assumption: things that are obvious to you are not to your client. A common example: cabinet layouts seem merely cosmetic to most clients, but you know that they need to be finalized early on to ensure rough plumbing and electrical can happen on schedule. Taking the time upfront to educate your clients will make them feel more in control of their project, increase their trust in the decisions you make, and ultimately help you keep the project on schedule.

There are dozens of ways to apply this lesson throughout your process to deliver more client value. In doing so, you become more than just a contractor: you become a trusted source of insight, providing your client with the power to make their own choices and plan ahead.

Principle 2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.

Storage. Traffic flow. Number of children. Number of cooks. Number of friends. Baking. BBQing. Drinking. Eating.

For your average person, there are few things in life that produce as much anxiety as building or remodeling a home. There are more than 100 decisions that go into a kitchen remodel – cabinets, countertops, backsplash, plumbing, lighting...the list goes on. For each of these decisions, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars at stake.

It makes sense, then, that clients would be prone to changing their minds and delaying decision-making.

Sometimes, a client changing their mind isn’t OK. You can’t turn a concrete slab into a basement – at least not very easily!

But, other times, it’s perfectly reasonable.

So instead of pitting ourselves against change, what if we anticipated, and managed it, for the good of everyone involved in the process?

In Agile, we anticipate the client’s upcoming decisions and help them consider each option at the right time. For example, create a selection/decision schedule at the beginning of the project and spend time reviewing it with your client. Make sure they understand the cost and timing of the decisions they’re responsible for, and explain which decisions impact others. Include all of the decisions and selections the client will need to make, along with the due dates for each, to keep the project on track. Then, agree on a process to manage decisions throughout the project. Handing them a list at the beginning of the project and then never talking about it again won’t be effective because, as we all know, things change. Instead, review the project schedule regularly with your client, keep them apprised of progress, and discuss upcoming milestones so they never feel caught off-guard.

Principle 3: Developers must work continuously with stakeholders throughout the project.

In the context of software development, “business people” are the key stakeholders and usually the end customer of the software. Prior to Agile, after spending months gathering and agreeing to a set of requirements, software development teams would go off and build for months, rarely speaking to the customer. Then, voilà – they’d hand over the software and cross their fingers. All of the requirements had been agreed to, so why did they need to talk to the stakeholders along the way?

Yeah, no.

Anyone who has ever had to make a costly change after production – like Toyota’s Satoshi Ishi – knows this is a flawed methodology and a doomed approach to project management. In software development – or any industry for that matter – lack of communication is always a root cause of failure. Keeping the lines of communication open throughout the project is the key to keeping everyone aligned.

So, how often do you provide project updates to your clients and teams? If you’re like the majority of contractors out there, probably not enough. As technology improves process and transparency in all aspects of their lives, what your clients expect from a construction project are changing and so too must the communication cadence during a project.

Consumer technology like Instagram and Uber have set a high bar for instant gratification. In our research, a majority of clients say they expect to hear from their contractors at least daily, with more than 80% expecting to receive project updates multiple times per week. Fair? Probably not, especially in a business as complicated as construction. But if this is the new reality, what is a builder to do?

To start, create a set of simple communication protocols to always stay one step ahead of your clients, anticipate their next questions, and attend to their desire for progress updates.

Sound complicated? It doesn’t need to be. Here is a simple exercise to get started:

  1. Map out the high-level sequence of activities in your typical projects. Do this for each type of project you take on. For example, breaking ground, framing, dry-in, etc.
  2. Next, put yourselves in the customer’s shoes for each phase of the project. Truly try to get in their mindset. For example, you can almost guarantee that your client will feel like the job is “almost done” once the project is dried in, when in reality there are months to go.
  3. Keep track of the frantic texts and panicked phone calls you get from nearly every customer along that journey.
  4. Then, schedule a series of updates you can provide to your client. Common touch points include: a weekly preview to set expectations every Sunday evening, simple daily recaps with a few photos from the jobsite before your commute home, and a more holistic update each Friday afternoon to celebrate the visible and invisible progress made on the project.

You can decide the format and frequency of these communications that works best for your business. But once you do, JUST DO IT. Set calendar reminders with alerts so you don’t forget. Delegate communication to your team members who have a knack for client management. Create templates that you can quickly and easily update any time with new information. Whatever it takes. The key is to be consistent and to use a format that you’ll stick with.

Continue here to read part 2 of our core Agile principles.