New Hanover County Best Practices

I thought you might enjoy reading my most recent Greater Wilmington Business Journal Insight article, which highlights some of the ways that New Hanover County is being innovative, developing best practices, and delivering value for our citizens…

I often say New Hanover County employs the best and brightest, and I truly believe that. We have a workforce committed to public service, with a focus on developing innovative programs to be good stewards and successfully serve our community.

In July, 10 New Hanover County initiatives were awarded Achievement Awards by the National Association of Counties (NACo). These programs were chosen because they are collaborative, successful and sustainable. They are the best of the best. In fact, New Hanover County received the highest number of Achievement Awards in North Carolina. We are seen as a leader in both the state and nation, and that is a great honor.

The internal business process of New Hanover County always seeks to develop fiscally sound programs that improve operational effectiveness. The county’s Information Technology (IT) Department is a prime example of this.

As a centralized department, our IT staff services all county agencies – from our libraries to the sheriff’s office, and everywhere in between. Over the years, county departments have increased their reliance on IT to implement technology solutions for greater efficiency and more streamlined processes.

Faced with fewer staff and greater demands for service, IT needed a way to ensure that resources were focused on the county’s highest priorities and that it was able to deliver on its commitments in a consistent way. So, IT instituted the Scrum method, which is a subset of processes for agile project management.

By implementing this new management method, our IT Department has gone from a 50 percent project completion rate to a 90 percent completion rate without hiring any new staff. It came at no cost to the county but has dramatically benefited the operations of IT and the county as a whole. This success not only earned the department a NACo Achievement Award, but also won first place in the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) 2016 Excellence in Innovation Awards in August.

Here’s a quick look into this best practice, something from which your own organization or business could benefit.

The county’s IT department used the Scrum method to break projects down into small pieces called sprints.  IT determined its sprint length to be one month, so each project manager breaks projects down into tasks a month at a time.

By focusing on smaller, more iterative deliverables, IT is able to focus on activities that will ultimately move a project to completion in a timely manner. Maintaining an active backlog of work and only “sprinting” work approved by the management team also ensures the entire department is working on the projects that will bring the highest return to the county.

The sprint period includes weekly “stand-up” meetings in the IT Department. All of the staff participate – literally standing up for the meeting – and answer three questions: “What task did you complete last week?”; “What tasks are you planning to complete this week?”; and “What impediments do you face in completing your tasks?”

By focusing on just these three questions, the meetings are quick – usually lasting about 30 minutes – and all team members are provided with a snapshot of every project’s status in the department. Managers then focus on removing any impediments for the teams so they, in turn, can focus on completing tasks.

For a visual of the department’s progress, boards can be seen in the back of the office with colorful Post-it® Notes. These notes list individual tasks for projects and they are moved among the To Do, Doing and Done columns. It’s a simple way of tracking each task and at the end of the month, most of the sticky notes are in the Done category. Impediments are also prominently displayed until a manager removes them for the team.

One other key component of Scrum is a meeting called the retrospective. At the end of a sprint, the entire IT Department comes together to discuss how the process went. Staff discusses what kept the department from meeting its promises and how to remove barriers more efficiently so work can progress in a predictable way. Through these retrospectives, IT team members learn to work together to solve problems.

Scrum process manuals abound on the internet and in bookstores. Originally used in the software development industry, the concept has found its way into project management and has blended in with traditional methods for keeping projects on track and teams focused.

New Hanover County IT did not invent Scrum but the department did study the methods and selectively applied the approaches that best fit the culture of the department and the county. The systems were chosen to provide more predictability and control of the work going on in the department, as well as enhance communication across the department about current projects and their priorities.

Sometimes the most efficient programs are the simplest to implement and maintain. Any business can take the concepts of Scrum and apply them to a department that has project-based work. The results speak for themselves: an increase of 40 percent in priority projects completed on time, a better focus on the projects that have the greatest impact on the services that are delivered and an informed and engaged workforce.

This is among one of the best practices New Hanover County implements to ensure operational effectiveness and build a culture of innovation and collaboration. These recent national and state awards further highlight our commitment to being the model of good governance and keeping our community safe, healthy and secure.

Click here to view a NHCTV video about our IT department’s award-winning project management initiative.

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