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From Domestic Helpers to Committed Teams

01/30/2013 by Sarabjit Singh Bakshi

As my life responsibilities started growing, I began to feel the need to hire a domestic helper. The triple constraints of time, money, and relationships in life were what I was fighting through. Keeping myself busy on trivial issues that I was not an expert at, and that stopped me from using my time independently and passionately, had led me into a syndrome of deadlock. I realized that I needed someone who could help me out of this situation. Acting on the reference of an old colleague, I was able to find an agency to cater my urgent need for domestic help.

I visited the domestic help agency and discussed with the manager the rules and regulations of the new relationship that was about to be established. It was nothing less than an interview to find out about me; it lasted approximately two hours, and I made my way through a plethora of questions. Actually, it was more like an RFI (Request for information). Questions included:

  • How many members are in the family? (stakeholders)
  • What was the work list? (expectation setting)
  • What type of job are you in? (sponsor health)
  • Have you had any previous experience of hiring a domestic helper? (transition roadmap )

I was amazed by the manager's skill in gathering the requirements so quickly. I was also busy gazing at a list of domestic workers she had shared with me, thinking about who among them could fit into my lifestyle and help me break out of my deadlock, when the million-dollar question popped up: "Sir," asked the manager, "Do you need a basic, semi, or full?" I was confused and asked her what the terms meant. She responded that the agency had three categories of domestic helpers:

  • ($) Basic: These are those who are new to the network, who need a certain amount of hand-holding.
  • ($$) Semi: These are those who have been in this service for some time and need less oversight.
  • ($$$) Full: These are professionals who have been fully trained to do any type of work.

The manager discussed the differences clearly. She also pointed out that, once hired, the helper would need to have her own separate room in the house. Next the manager listed the holidays the helper might or would take, the most interesting being Sundays: On every Sunday, all helpers are required to spend a full day together at the agency.

I was interested in the business model. This manager's position demanded a lot of flexibility, patience, and control over the state of affairs (the customer's needs). Meanwhile, I started thinking about my needs: simple, medium, or complex? I started recollecting estimation models (buffers, infrastructure cost, and so on). On this occasion, I was the customer, and I needed to decide what would best suit my needs. As a customer who always thinks about cost of the service over the value add to the business cycle, I opted -- with much retrospective -- for the "simple" category.

This was the best decision that I took, taking into consideration the requirements (user stories) that would have been stated by my family members. I needed someone who would slowly set a cadence with the family. Meanwhile, I was ready to impart all needed support to the helper, to help us all get into BAU (business as usual) mode.

Throughout this transformative journey, I've come to see how the product owner (the customer), the ScrumMaster (the domestic service agency manager), and the team (the domestic helper) work together with an Agile approach. What this service agency had (unknowingly?) done was to adopt a lean, Agile model. All workers are located at their customer's site (our homes), and they do their daily stand-up during any time of the day, when they reply to questions asked and share their own views and ideas. The manager holds a weekly scrum with the workers: Every Sunday they meet to discuss their views and experiences in what is basically a retrospective. They also cook and eat together, which bonds them and unites them with the common issues the ScrumMaster (agency manger) needs to take forward. The other good thing I observed was that the agency has linked with an NGO who helps them learn new skills — they're making the team cross-functional.

This agency applied the Agile methods of inspection and adaption, and of incremental and iterative, workable service over big plans (expectations). It helped both me (the customer) and the helper (the employee). We could easily gauge the new rhythm and how it slowly transformed the way we did things at home. Gradually I found myself getting out of the trap I'd been in, and I felt renewed independence and the ability to follow my real goals.

The intent here for the agency was not to teach Scrum, but unintentionally they were running a Scrum of Scrums! And the result is trust and coordination between employers and vendors.

There are several lessons to be learned here. First and most obvious is how effective Agile methods can be in what may seem like unexpected places. Second, there's a carryover for those of us in "traditionally" Scrum-related industries: Especially if we're involved in big brands, how often do we have face-to-face (connected), productive weekly scrums? And how fun-filled can we make such events if we think in Agile terms?