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Agile Project Management in Alaska

Anchorage I have just returned from a great trip to Alaska. It was made possible by a request to speak at the PMI Alaska chapter and deliver two one-day training courses. Alaska is one of those places I have always wanted to visit and so I took the family and extended the trip to include a mini vacation.
The Work
For a city with a relatively small population (360,000) they have an active and well attended PMI Chapter. Over 70 people turned out for my dinner presentation on “Leading Agile Teams” and then we had 40 people each day for the one day classes.

Both were new classes, the first “Agile Project Mechanics” was a one day class focussed on agile processes, agile planning and estimating, etc. The second one day class, “Agile Project Dynamics” which was all about the people side of projects, building empowered teams and leadership rather than management. I was a bit hesitant about separating these topics since I think you need a combination of mechanics and dynamics; but as it turned out most people attended both days and so a balance was achieved.
Agile Beyond IT
The group was more diverse than I am used to. When I teach the SeminarsWorld course normally the attendees come from the IT industry. In Anchorage we had IT, construction and engineering managers, a fireman, and local authority project managers.

Agile In Construction
In the construction industry there are many parallels between agile and The Last Planner model. The Last Planner model (Glen Ballard) comes from Lean Construction and gets its name from the practice of moving the planning activity down to the last people in the work chain, the construction workers. 
Last Planner

Here we see multiple layers of planning, at a high level by the architect, at a middle level by the Site Manager, and at the lowest level by the Work Team. The idea is to let the Work Team do the day-to-day scheduling based on what is practical. 
Last Planner 4

The team signs up to undertake tasks based on what Should and Can be worked on. (Remember “Should” and “Can” here are resource dependant, not task priorities from MoSCoW). The work activities they select and commit to delivering is called a Weekly Work Plan (in agile terms we would call it an Iteration Plan). Letting the workers (last planners) create the plans brings a number of advantages:
• The right sequence of work is selected
• The right amount of work is selected
• The work selected is practical

Velocity is tracked via a (not very agile sounding) Percent Plan Complete metric which is a ratio of completed vs planned tasks. This idea is similar to velocity. 

The root cause of variance from this planned velocity is then analyzed as a means for better understanding the sources of variance. Some degrees of variance will always be present, but sometimes the ability to plan can be improved.

There is good alignment between Last Planner and Agile, including:
• Devolution of planning and scheduling to workers who have the best knowledge of the work dependencies and estimates
• It promotes worker ownership of plans
• Simple tracking of work completed (velocity)
• Reflection, feedback and adaptation
• Measures against results not conformance to a plan

Agile In Health and Politics
Many industries faced with limited resources employ a triage system to prioritize work items. At the hospital emergency units triage admissions and attempt to prioritize patient treatment based on criticality and need.

Governors aiming to make the most of a limited time in office with a limited budget prioritize there goals and objectives to deliver maximum value to constituents. Michele Sliger has a nice account of how Rudy Giuliani used agile principles to help reform crime in New York City when he was mayor.  This included creating a prioritized backlog of issues that needed to be addressed in a short time. Forming collaborative relationships with police and other advisors, defining a vision and then delivering initiatives in an iterative manner.

Agile in Hard to predict environments
Some work environments are just too chaotic to plan in detail. Doctors do not know what ailments they will be treating that day, they cannot order all the medicine they will need for a week in advance, they need stock buffers, quick supply and must respond to the circumstances. Likewise teachers and fire fighters cannot plan, schedule or budget their work in advance and yet they maintain a professional service.

Some projects are too chaotic to plan and schedule in advance also. We know where we want to get to, but the exact route is not known or knowable in advance. Agile methods provide guardrails within which to run emergent projects. They provide enough structure and feedback to remain responsible to sponsors, but allow the freedom for the project to adapt based on trials and reflection.

Anyone who has organized a children’s party knows you cannot schedule all the activities; instead it is better to have a set of high-level acceptance tests. There will be cake and games, everyone to go home with a present, everyone has a good time, no one gets hurt, etc. Trying a command-and-control birthday party such as: 6:00pm children arrive, 6:15 pass the parcel, 6:30 cake, might be fun to watch someone try, but a disaster for the organizer and likely the children. We must tailor the process to the nature of the endeavour. All too often on projects we attempt to shoehorn an evolving process into a rigid process with dire results. Agile methods excel at handling variation and uncertainty.

The Vacation
I took my wife, Sam and 2 year old son Jake with me to Alaska and we had a great time. We visited the Kenai Peninsula for a few days, staying in Homer, a small fishing and tourism based town, at the end of the road down from Anchorage. We thought it was pretty quiet there (the main tourist season finishes in early September) until we visited the tiny village of Seldovia which is accessible only by boat, on a remote part of the Kenai peninsula and only has about 10 miles of roads that do not connect anywhere outside of the village. Seldovia, after the tourist season has finished is super quiet, other than a few dogs asleep in the road the place was almost deserted. They have a nice harbour and a float plane dock, people drive ATV’s, tractors and golf carts on the roads back and forth to the harbour. It reminded me of Cornwall in England during the 1970’s where I grew up in the country and the pace of life was slow.


We visited Whittier, once an important cold war deep water port and home to the longest tunnel in the US. This the departure point for cruises to see glaciers carving into the sea and for whale watching. The weather was not great, we had lots of rain, but we got out all the same and saw plenty of wildlife including moose, bears, whales and even a lynx.


I had always wanted to go to Denali National park and see Mt McKinley. Being into climbing for so long I had read many accounts of climbs, triumphs and tragedies there and so I was disappointed to learn that the tour busses that usually take people into the park had stopped for the year. At the end of the season they allow private vehicles to drive the 90 mile gravel road for just one weekend and then the road is closed. Permits to drive that weekend are in high demand and so the Parks service raffle them off via a lottery system each year.


Many people on my course had been trying to get tickets for years, but had not yet been successful. The ones that had been raved about the great scenery, wildlife and views - if the weather was good. On the off chance of going, I posted a note on the Anchorage Craigs List explaining our position and enquiring if anyone had a spare ticket. To my surprise a local school teacher who had won a ticket, but could not use it called me and said I could have it. It seemed a great opportunity and so after making a contribution to her school fund, we had our Denali road permit and headed North.


We stayed in a cute cabin near Talkeetna, a picturesque little town about 15 miles off the main highway connecting Anchorage and Denali National Park. It seemed that Talkeetna could become overly busy with tourists in the summer months, but again it was fairly quiet for us which was great.


Miraculously after 9 days of rain the sun came out for our drive into Denali National Park. After a briefing from the rangers about driving instructions we were off down the famous gravel road into the park. I was in heaven, the views were great, we saw all of Mt McKinley which is very impressive. It rises to over 20,000 feet from a base of 2,000 feet. Of course Everest is much higher at 29,000 feet but that rises from a base of around 18,000 feet, so the sheer size of McKinely seems immense. Normally when I see a mountain I just want to go and climb it right then. Not so with this one, it is big and scary, a serious undertaking.


Anyway, our one good weather day could not have come at a better time; we saw the park, lots of grizzly bears, black bears, moose, sheep, etc and had a great time. All in all I had a great trip. I loved the frontier feel of Alaska, the people were down to earth, friendly and practical. If it did not rain so much I would like to live there (living in England for over 30 years put me off wet places) and I would definitely like to go back and explore some more.


Matthew Horvat

Howdy Mike,

Nice synthesis of Last Planner method. You sound well versed. One point of clarification - the Last Planner is meant to be the construction foremen, not actually the guy swinging the proverbial hammer. The name came from the "Last" guy to "Plan" the work. I distinguish between the "CEO" planning system to emphasize this point.

Thanks for your posting. Exposing the PMI group to Lean Construction techniques is great. PMI is the one industry recognized professional association that has the reach and breadth to have real impact.

Have a great day,
Matt Horvat, PMP, EIT, SSBB, MSE, MBA
Project Coach
Lean Project Consulting

Mike Griffiths

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comments. My exposure to Last Planner was with one custom home builder. They were timber frame specialists and everyone was quite experienced. In this one limited example, the actual workers (guys with saws) were engaged with the foreman in creating the Weekly Work Plan. However, i can see how this might be problematic on regular build projects and the foreman would be preferable.

Thanks for explaining this.

Best regards

Mike Griffiths
Leading Answers

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