How a housing allocations team went digital on a whiteboard – and developed a simple tailored solution without involving IT at all

It started on a whiteboard …

I was working with a team in local authority housing that was redesigning the way properties about to become empty are allocated to families in need of social housing. We’d reached a point where several properties were being dealt with in the new emerging flow and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the status of individual properties.

Not unexpectedly, the team’s starting point was: ‘Let’s get IT to develop a system to keep track of them.’ After some discussion members decided that what mattered was to start by creating a tool that was low tech, simple and visible. So we started on a whiteboard. Where did we end up? … well, more on that later.

The point here is that when organisations encounter a business problem, more often than not they respond by reflexively turning to information technology. The result is that the original problem gets papered over – not solved but embedded in a technology solution. The result is overly complex, costly and unnecessary IT solutions. It’s not that the use of IT is bad – if well conceived and designed, it can greatly improve effectiveness and efficiency – it’s the unquestioning way we turn to IT as the solution.

An example of where the unquestioning approach leads. In many service organisations the work required to solve a customer’s problem is fragmented. That is, rather than being completed by one person it is split across many people, the thinking being that specialisation of tasks will be more efficient. In fact, to do the work, information about it needs to be shared by several people, so fragmenting it creates problems of communication and coordination. So we stitch it all back together with an IT workflow solution, when a better remedy would be to get rid of the fragmentation that caused the problem in the first place.

Returning to the housing team let me provide some context for the evolution of the IT solution.

The existing workflow is typical of what happens in local authority housing departments and housing associations.

How it used to be…

A tenant tells the housing officer that he or she is moving out, signalling that a property is about to come vacant. On confirmation of the departure, the housing officer requests a nomination from an allocations officer. The allocations officer advertises the property, allowing registered users (i.e. people on the housing waiting list) to bid for it. On average 100 people do so. When people are added to the waiting list they are put in bands of need – high, medium or low. When the bidding window has closed, the allocations officer selects the bidder with the longest wait in the highest band of need. The selection or nomination is passed to the housing officer. The advertising, bidding and selection process takes an average of 23 days. At no point does the housing officer – who knows the property, neighbours and neighbourhood – have any involvement in the selection of the successful bidder.

When the current tenant hands back the keys, they are passed to building services for inspection and refurbishment, after which the housing officer arranges a viewing with the successful tenant and signs them up to move in.

How it is now…

In the redesigned process the team arrived at a better flow that:

  • Eliminates the advertising and bidding process which causes delay and prevents effective consideration of right person/right property
  • Builds in a site visit with housing officer and surveyor before the existing tenant leaves to gather information that would help identify a new one
  • Reshapes the allocation role so that it can be done collaboratively between the allocation officer, housing officer and surveyor
  • Designs in opportunity for the incoming tenant to view the property and agree with the housing officer and surveyor what work is neededbefore moving in and what work the tenant chooses to have done after they move in.
  • Agreeing what work is needed before moving in eliminates the waste of removing non-standard items that might be useful for the new tenant.
  • Ensures that the incoming tenant has enough time to make moving arrangements
  • Designs in appropriate collaboration with housing benefits so the new tenant is set up ‘clean’ – that is, they know exactly what their net rent will be and they are set up to pay.

How we got to a better IT solution…

Now let’s return to the problem foreshadowed at the start – how to manage the movement of properties and people through the redesigned flow.

As noted, the team began by using a whiteboard. There was a column for each housing officer and a row for each stage in the process. Property addresses in the appropriate cell indicated the owning housing officer and the stage the property had reached. Information moved vertically down the board as the property progressed through the flow.

This worked well while the number of properties and staff involved were low but became messy as they increased. However, it did allow the team to get clear on the information that was needed at each stage.

Having arrived at an effective flow and information needs empirically, the team was now in a position to decide on a better way of making the progress of properties visible and manageable.

The initial candidate was a manual, wall-based T-card system – which was quickly discarded since it needed to be visible both to all housing officers and surveyors, and each had different information needs.

So the team experimented with a web-based T-card system that could be readily tailored to different user needs. In just hours they built a simple and powerful visual management system that continues to provide effective support to the end-to-end void and allocation flow.

The following screen-shots show the two primary views of the T-card information – one used primarily by housing officers ensuring the right people are allocated to the right properties, the other by surveyors managing agreed work to properties.

This example from local authority housing is a simple illustration of the Vanguard principle that deferring decisions about a potential IT solution until after the flow has been redesigned results in better supporting solutions, cheaper and much more quickly.

It’s worth reiterating that having started with a low-tech manual solution (the whiteboard) the team progressed to a commercial web-based solution that was readily configured by housing officers (i.e. non-IT people) to suit their specific needs – in hours. In this example, there was no need for specialist IT involvement at all.

The moral is, don’t default to IT as the solution to business problems. Apply the principle: understand the problem; improve the underlying flow; and ‘pull’ IT as necessary. Start on a whiteboard!

David Puttick