How trust, kanban and a little structure changed a life

Work life is a serious thing. We spend (at least) one-third of our time awake at work, and in some cases much more time than what we spend with our families most days of the year.

Now imagine what would happen if your work would be falling apart. You have too much work, and are being constanly interrupted. Your authority and ability to contribute is undermined. And on top of it your place of work is literally crumbling: the roof collapsed and what is left is being innudated by dirty water that runs off from the roof’s debri.

Meet Ibu Elsye!  Ibu Elsye is the lady dressed in black in the picture or “Mrs.” Elsye if you don’t speak Indonesian ;).

She’s General Manager of a hospital, Rumah Sakit Bungsu (aka The Bungsu), that Marcus Hammarberg helped, in Indonesia. General Manager; what is that, in a hospital? I’m happy you asked: basically she’s in charge of everything that is not health care. Food, laundry, maintenance, security staff, drivers … you name it.

In The Bungsu, if you need something fixed – go to Ibu Elsye.

But Ibu Elsye’s work life was not going very well…

Work life at the Bungsu, Ibu Elsye’s story

She asked Marcus for help (asking for help is very important, remember that). She said that her department was overworked, and on top of that never got anything “done”. This had to do with priorities being changed often and also many people bypassed Ibu Elsye and went straight to the people beneath her. Does this situation sound familiar? Many of us, Scrum Masters, are in the same situation when we work with teams…

She spent her days just running around trying to get things done, which  – she said to Marcu – “I don’t want to do anymore because the moment I go into a room I get more to do”. This was an emotional cry for help. The work-life was affecting Ibu Elsye at an emotional level…

So Marcus started working with Ibu Elsye to find a solution. Just like we work with Product Owners, Teams and Stakeholders to find solutions to similar situations.

The Plan to help Ibu Elsye

Ibu Elsye’s stress levels were through the roof (the broken roof of the The Bungsu wasn’t helping the sitation either!).

Marcus and his colleague Dinauli decided to try to help her. The plan was very simply; let Ibu Elsye take control of the tasks and her schedule for her days.

Step one: Move authority to the information

The management at the Bungsu had their morning meeting around a visual board that Marcus had setup every morning. It contained the things that were being worked on at that time.

To resolve the situation, Marcus in his role of helping the management team of the hospital, made one of very few direct decisions he made while he was there. he said: “From now on – we don’t talk about maintenance and stuff like that in this meeting. We leave that with Ibu Elsye. We trust you to take care of that for us.”

Together, they decided that Ibu Elsye would report to management on a weekly basis what her department had accomplished and come back if she had any problems or questions.

This was really a blessing for the management team too. Because, at that time, management spent way too much (all?) time talking about details; like best type of flowers in the garden and colors of walls etc. Does this sound familiar? A manager wanting to discuss the technical details of a solution is a very common anti-pattern in many Scrum teams.

The management team could finally, even if not everyone liked it, let go of all of those things and focus on the real problems and opportunities in the hospital.

Step two: Structure and communication

Step number two was to give Ibu Elsye some tools to help with structure. Dinauli (Marcus’ colleague), created a schedule for what needed to happen during the day.

She would have morning meetings with her staff; a short briefing on what is happening during the day, 10 minutes at most. She needed two separate meetings for that since the security staff couldn’t all leave their post at the same time. The focus of those daily briefings was to focus was on “What” needs to happen today and information sharing.

Then they allocated 1 hour for her to go around the hospital. This was time boxed to 1 hour; when the time Ibu Elsye would go back to her office and continue the day even if she didn’t get through the entire hospital.

There were other daily duties, but they also allocated time for slack / catch up time in her schedule. This is super important and made all the difference for her.

For example, on days where she couldn’t complete her “rounds” in the morning, she would have some slack time in the afternoon to continue.

Step three: Structure the flow of work

They decided that all maintenance related work that needed to happen needed to go through Ibu Elise. In Indonesia this is easy; they just had the director of the hospital say this, in front of all the staff: “From now on anything you want to have fixed has to be written down and handed to Ibu Elsye. No going to the workers directly”

Done! People were sure to follow that order.

They even created a special yellow slip that Ibu Elsye carried with her during her walks around the hospital, offering people to add things. She then added those ideas to her list, and made the prioritization for the next day’s work (sometimes a bit more than one day’s work).

Step four: Limit work in process

Marcus suggested to the workers and Ibu Elsye that they, in their morning meetings, always only work the top 3 prioritized tasks for the day. When they are finished they come to Ibu Elise for the next task.

There was a short look of disbelief when Marcus said this, then a “Can I do that” and then:

The outcome

Already 1 day later she came up to Marcus and said that her days were “so much calmer now“. And the staff loved the focus and calmness of work that the changes had brought.

Two weeks after these changes, they were all in the management’s morning meeting and something amazing happened. Management got the first report from Ibu Elise.

Normally Ibu Elsye’s department had been able to complete 2-3 things per week, so 6-8 things completedd would have been expected for an improvement. Maybe even 10.

Ibu Elsye reported 46 items. Forty-six work items that they had completed in the previous 2 weeks.

Marcus reports: “It was the best morning meeting I ever attended. People started to laugh in disbelief. There was cheering for each item (“YES – finally our AC got fixed!”). There were tears of joy. People were hugging each other out of… pride or just the general feeling of liberation and happiness. It took so long that I brought out a chair to sit on (as a joke).

Even the sourest of us were nodding in approval. Food for the celebration of such a great improvement was suggested – to mine and everyone’s happy approval.

But here is the most important transformation: in the middle of it all – stood a new Ibu Elsye. With confidence, happiness and pride. This was really her doing, her time to shine. She had a new voice “And then my team did”, “We also finished” and “Remember the old lamp in the kitchen? … SUDAH! (fixed)”

Here’s a short video if Ibu Elsye going through point 22 – 26 of the things that her team had accomplished.

Conclusion – what happened here, really?

Very shortly – they unlocked the potential of Ibu Elsye. They gave her the room to be awesome. They showed trust in her and were clear about their trust and expectation (accountability) to her clearly.

Structuring her schedule, limiting work in process and moving the authority to the information played a big part – but there was an amazing person in there that just got out to be better than before. That was all her.

Ask yourself: who around you do you need to trust more? Give more room? Maybe it’s that person that you didn’t think had it in them? What do I, myself, need to do for someone else to become more?

As Marcus said: “This day was amazing and I will never forget it”

A day when a person is transformed is an unforgettable day!

The story continues

Not all stories have happy ends though. Ibu Elsye’s story continued:

One day Ibu Elsye presentd a report again, but that time she was a little reluctant to start with.

“Well… I’ve lost one of my two workers to driving and also we have cut the budgets for improvements, so we have not done as much as before”, she started, and then went on to report 38 items more completed over the previous 2 weeks. This was a team that was able to complete a couple of items before the transformation!

Think that over; she lost 50% of her staff AND had a smaller budget to make the improvements. Still her team completed 38 items of improvement.

Firstly, this is a testament to the effectiveness (and efficiency) of her team. Secondly, there was a lot of innovation going on there. They didn’t do the things they wanted, or in the way the wanted, so they did something else instead. They found a way – on their own – to complete the work that the hospital needed them to complete.

Thirdly, and most important, when Marcus asked her about her work situation she said:“I’ve never been happier. It’s just smiles smiles smiles”

In Marcus’ own words: “This day was amazing too, and I don’t think I’ll forget that either.”

Wouldn’t you like to have one of those days with your team?

The PDF below is a coaching session with Marcus Hammarberg, where he reviews and explains the impact of slack-time on Ibu Elsye’s quality of work-life as well as in other situations. It explains how you, as a Scrum Master and a Coach, can become a better coach by using slack-time yourself! 🙂

Marcus is the author of Salvation:The Bungsu Story, a fascinating account of a real-life crisis, and how Agile, Lean and Kanban saved the Hospital from bankruptcy! Twice! Get ready for the journey, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

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