Using Load Shedding to explain Quarterly PI Objectives


Quick Explanation for Foreign Readers

For those on other parts of the planet, loadshedding is a shameful South African phenomenon that started in 2007 and has become progressively worse. The inability of the state-run electricity public utility monopoly to produce enough power for the country means that scheduled rolling blackouts are experienced for up to 12 hours per day. These rolling blackouts are euphemistically called ‘loadshedding’.

My wife and I are both firmly in the hybrid work model, spending roughly half of our salaried time working from home. Therefore, we urgently needed to implement some counter loadshedding measures.

The Traditional Approach

If you either are still stuck in the traditional “big up front” design approach to solution development (and sometimes this is the correct approach), you would start out investigating various options, chatting to friends and neighbours about their solutions and getting quotes from various providers to come up with a loadshedding solution.

If we were setting an objective for our household, a really bad one would be “Investigate loadshedding options”. It is a bad objective because it is very vague and the value (or “why”) is missing. There is no clarity as to what needs to be done to achieve the objective nor what valuable outcome will be achieved if the objective is met. If I spend five minutes on the internet Googling “loadshedding solutions” have I met the objective?

A better, but far from great, objective would be “Get three different quotes for inverters.” This reworded objective provides clarity on whether I achieved the objective or not. If I have three or more inverter quotes in my hand I’ve met the objective, if not I don’t. However, there are still two problems. The first is that I am ignoring other possible solutions by assuming that the solution is an “inverter”. The second problem is that the valuable outcome is still not clear – and the easiest way to solve that problem is to add a “so that” onto the objective.

In this scenario, a better objective would be, “Understand the different costs, benefits and drawbacks between solar, inverter and generator secondary power options so that we can make an informed decision about our loadshedding needs.”

This is good but still not great. What are ‘our loadshedding needs’? This is still very ambiguous. My understanding and expectations may differ widely from my wife’s – and our daughters may have their own separate needs and demands.

In getting to this point, we’ve followed the traditional big up front design (in the SAFe world this would be called an Analysis Enbaler). If our objective was to get off the grid completely, we would definitely want to follow an Analysis Enabler approach because of the cost and risk. However, for the next part of this article, I’d like to reframe the problem and illustrate how we can chase an iterative solution.

The Iterative Approach – Reframing an Objective

Instead of running off to get expensive quotes and being overwhelmed by all the various options and technical jargon, we sat down as a family to discuss the problems to be solved. The problems would no doubt be different for different families but in our case there were four big power needs.

During loadshedding, we need:

  1. Wi-Fi during so that we can work from home.
  2. To be able to make tea and do basic cooking.
  3. To be able to watch Netflix and other streaming services.
  4. Basic lighting around the house at night.

Other factors that were considered but did not make it into the objectives list were:

  • Fridges / freezers – these keep their cool sufficiently during loadshedding so we have not experienced spoiled food and the insulation is good enough that I can have cold beer (although we buy a lot less fresh fish during the weekly grocery shop these days).
  • Washing machine – this is definitely a nuisance factor but we are now a lot more strategic about getting our loads on (if you’ve got a gap, you take it!)
  • Morning smoothies – my wife is very diligent about her diet and she now also has to be very diligent about scheduling blender usage. On days where there is no power from 6-8:30am she either needs to wake up extra early or make the smoothie the night before. I can see this one being reprioritised on the backlog in future…

Further discussion determined that if we solved the Wi-Fi problem, we would also solve the Netflix problem as we have enough laptops, tablets and other battery powered devices around the house to watch our favourite shows during loadshedding. Family board games also proved to be a more than adequate substitute.

We had already bought a number of solar powered lamps which provided enough light to read and Florence Nightingale around the house safely at night. We thought it might be worthwhile to buy some additional loadshedding globes but this was not a big enough undertaking to be an objective.

We therefore scratched objectives #3 and #4 off the list, objective #2 stood as written and objective #1 was refined to be more specific, “We need 5 hours of Wi-Fi coverage during loadshedding so that we can work and connect to Teams calls.” At this stage loadshedding lasts a maximum of four hours (but we might need to revisit this one if current trends continue).

The Cheap & Simple Solution – Meeting the Objective

We bought two Wi-Fi UPSs for approximately R500 each and a basic gas cooker for R200 thereby meeting the objectives in a quick, cheap and simple manner. The outcomes are visible in the photos below.

We now have more than enough UPS capacity to get us through the long 4.5 hour loadshedding stretches so that we can carry on working uninterrupted during the day and binge on Netflix at night (if we so choose).

On loadshedding mornings my mood and quality of work is no longer impaired by a having to wait a few hours before my first cup of tea. In fact the solution has been so successful and the cups of tea copious enough that the birds in the garden have started mimicking the whistle of the gas kettle!

This solution might not be the ‘best thing since sliced’ bread* but it was a quick, cheap and very effective solution to our underlying problems.

* In South Africa, the best thing since sliced bread is having a toaster with a steady supply of electricity.

Show Me The Value

Many teams that I work with initially write their objectives in “Doing stuff” format rather than as “Achieving something valuable.” In this example a doing stuff objective would be something like, “Buy a UPS device.” This is not a good objective because it is just an output and not an outcome (or statement of value). To rectify this, we can simply add the ‘so that’ to the original statement, i.e. “Buy a UPS device so that I can work online and watch Netflix during loadshedding.”

Many people recommend using the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound) approach for objectives. I prefer to use two simple criteria:

  1. Is it clear what the valuable outcome is once the objective is achieved?
  2. Can someone outside the team read and understand the objective?

Anyone up for training Eskom on agile and quarterly objectives? All South Africans would love to see some value delivered in the next three months. Unfortunately, it currently looks like if there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it will have to be generator powered.

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