The Benefits of Scrum in Manufacturing

By Mark C. Layton, David Morrow

Scrum can have a tremendous impact in manufacturing. Interestingly, the lines between software and hardware are blurring. Tangible products nowadays have a surprising amount of software within them. The car you may drive, the refrigerator you cool your iced coffee in, and the e-reader you use are full of code.

Automobiles are now connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) technology and they are becoming increasingly software-driven. A Tesla vehicle connects to your home Wi-Fi and every month or so you download great new features. After an error was found to its charger, Tesla completed a fix for its 29,222 vehicle owners via software update. We are now on the cusp of self-driven cars.

New demands are placed on manufacturing processes that aren’t just connecting one widget to another. Complex systems, many of which are software-based, are interlacing and integrating. In fact, software is critical to the success of many manufactured products.

These trends are leading to larger, more complex development projects and teams with diverse arrays of talent. They also lead to increased complexity in incorporating product families (not just individual products), increased risk of defects as complexity rises, and a new array of compliance and required standards.

Survival of the fastest to market

One key to winning the race to market share is being the fastest to market, which isn’t a new concept. An equally important concept is keeping up with and even leading in innovation — specifically, innovation led by customer needs and desires.

You can be fastest to market only if you’re getting customer feedback up front while addressing the highest-priority features and highest risks. Higher quality is built through early testing. Scrum enables early, high-quality release to market. Sounds like a good fit for scrum. This reality is why Tesla and other manufacturers now employ scrum masters and agile coaches.

New technologies are astounding: robotics, artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, and nanotechnology, to name but a few. Each of these technologies introduces new complexities to production. Scrum- and agile-based frameworks are ideal for problem-solving complexity.

Shareholder value

The bureaucracies that are traditional parts of the manufacturing industry emphasize efficiency, cost-cutting, and maximized shareholder value as opposed to added value for customers. This emphasis is their Achilles’ heel. Companies that will excel in the future emphasize value to customers.

Scrum and its organic feedback cycle emphasize regular customer-value feedback. After each sprint, you have working, shippable product to show to stakeholders and customers. Even if you can’t get feedback during the sprint, scrum allows you to adapt as soon as you receive the feedback.

As stated in the Agile Manifesto, the primary measure of success is a working product in the hands of a customer — the earlier the better, and the more frequently the better. Scrum does both.

Strategic capacity management

In building tangible products, you may not have a final piece of product to place in someone’s hands at the end of a one-week sprint. This is fine. Just remember to keep the progression demonstrable and the feedback cycle as short as possible.

The idea is to have regular, frequent feedback from users. The specifics will vary with each product. Work to keep the feedback cycle as short as possible and decrease it when possible.

Intel’s transition to scrum

Intel has a long history of waterfall project management, given its manufacturing history. The company decided to test scrum for developing presilicon infrastructure and readiness. The idea was that if scrum worked for that project, Intel could implement it in other manufacturing processes.

Intel hired a scrum coach to help it identify and break old habits, integrate new ones, and generally understand the scrum framework properly. Despite the coaching, however, transition issues arose. Not every senior manager attended the initial scrum meetings, buy-in by important people was slow, and real-world examples of why scrum works weren’t being identified.

Eventually, Intel found that best way to get its teams implementing and benefiting from scrum was follow scrum guidelines and avoid customizing scrum to fit their process.

Pat Elwer authored a case study entitled “Agile Project Development at Intel: A Scrum Odyssey.”

In summary, the case study found that the teams discovered that scrum helped the project in four distinct ways:

  • A reduced cycle time of 66 percent.
  • Their performance remained on schedule with virtually no missed commitments.
  • Increased employee morale. Ironically, their lowest-morale team turned into the best-performing team.
  • Increased transparency, which has led to identifying impediments and unproductive habits.

After the teams and management bought into the process, the power of scrum soon became apparent.