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Agile in Engineering: How to Provide Superior Customer Value

Is Agile applicable in industrial engineering? If so, how does it work? Find an answer to these and more questions in our guide to Agile engineering.

The Agile movement first started with the intention to find better ways of managing projects that produce intangible products, such as software solutions.

However, the growing popularity of Agile practices begs the question of whether they can be applied to the development of tangible products and services too? Contrary to popular belief, they can and are now being adopted by numerous industries with more "linear" processes.

One of those industries is engineering/product development.

What Is Agile Engineering?

Before we explain what Аgile engineering is, let's take a closer look at this particular industry's general work processes.

In Engineering, the product development lifecycle is linear and goes through several well-defined, sequential steps. This process is represented by the so-called V cycle, which consists of 3 big stages. The left side depicts the concept design of given entities while the right side, their validation, and further maintenance. The phase between the two is where the development work happens.

v model in systems engineering

Image credit: mitre.org

While the Agile approach to engineering doesn't disrupt the sequential nature of the process, it optimizes it to provide superior customer value. Agile engineering teams aim to collect customer feedback as frequently as possible to capture changing requirements while the product is still in its rough state.

In Agile terms, this allows them to "fail fast" and reduce the potential cost of change, which is huge in the late phases of industrial projects. Furthermore, Agile engineering focuses on reducing work batch sizes and frequent delivery of value to the end customer. Combined with the idea of integrating rapid feedback loops, engineering teams become more capable of delivering the right product and meeting their customer's expectations.

Why an Agile Approach to Engineering?

With so many new products coming on the market every year, engineering companies need to innovate and provide their customers with superior value continuously. That's why they need to have more adaptive processes that allow them to change direction efficiently when necessary. Otherwise, they risk becoming uncompetitive on the market.
Below, we will take a look at some common challenges that engineering teams face and discuss how an Agile approach to project management can help solve them.

Long time to market / Late value delivery

Due to the sequential nature of the industrial engineering process, customers often have no idea what they will get until the late phases of the project. As mentioned above, the cost of change in the engineering industry is high. That's why teams try to avoid any late changes to decrease the likelihood of complete project failure.

The agile solution here is reducing the batch size and delivering value early in the process. Agile engineering achieves that by first producing prototypes that are demonstrated to customers to gather their immediate feedback.

The method is known as rapid prototyping, and nowadays, it has become possible with the introduction of new technologies such as 3D Printing. This process speeds up the delivery of value and allows the team to reflect on any changes in the Design phase, well before the production has begun.

From here, the Agile engineering lifecycle proceeds by developing an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) where only the most viable ingredients of the product are built. At its core, an MVP is a prototype too. However, teams commit to creating it once they already have a "proof of concept" as a result of prototyping.

Those are examples of iterative cycles that help engineering companies deliver early value and get fast feedback from the market. Moreover, they allow them to realize some quick financial returns sooner instead of having to wait until the entire product is developed and validated.

Inefficient engineering process

The production of complex products increases the risks of having to deal with issues alongside the development lifecycle. As a result, many engineering companies struggle to create sustainable work processes that can adapt to emerging problems.
The agile approach to engineering heavily focuses on visualization and continuous improvement of product development cycles to solve that. In practice, this can happen with the help of Kanban boards, where engineering teams can map their workflows from start to finish. As a result, they will be able to spot impediments (bottlenecks) and unveil any wasteful activities that are slowing down the work process.

bottleneck on a kanban board

Another Lean/Agile technique to increase process efficiency is Limiting Work In Progress. This way, agile engineering companies can control how much work is in progress at any given moment and shield their teams from overburdening. Also, WIP limits ensure that new work items cannot get started until the old tasks get finished. This results in a smoother workflow that keeps cycle time metrics low and throughput levels high.

wip limit on a kanban board

Communication gaps between engineering teams and other stakeholders

Often effective communication is what determines whether a product will be developed successfully or not. However, due to the heavy processes in the engineering industry, there is often a lack of proper communication between technical and business teams and external stakeholders.

Agile aims to solve that through high-level transparency and visualization of dependencies between interconnected teams. In Kanbanize, for example, we tackle this with the implementation of related Kanban boards that can be scaled across multiple teams in the organization, as seen from the image below.

related kanban boards in engineering

Another Agile practice that helps bridge communication gaps is the introduction of different cadences/meetings. For example, the daily stand-up is useful for having a quick internal discussion of project progress and any impediments to it.

kanban cadences

On the other hand, the Kanban replenishment meeting allows agile engineering teams to plan and prioritize their work. It also creates an opportunity for alignment between all stakeholders on what is the most critical work that needs to be executed next.

Real-Life Example of an Engineering Company that Reshaped its Culture with Kanban

So far, we have discussed how Lean/Agile practices can solve some challenges in the engineering industry. Now it's time to back up the theory with a real-life case study from Somabe - an industrial engineering company that successfully undertook a Lean/Agile transformation.

Facing pressing problems, among which lack of transparency, managing work in large batches, struggling with prioritization, weak communication, etc., the company's management decided to turn to Kanban.

See how Kanban 

works in engineering.

The adoption of its principles and practices for workflow visualization and organization provided Somabe with some immediate improvements, including:

  • Developing a work breakdown structure to segment complex tasks into smaller, more manageable portions. 
  • Creating an advanced, automated workflow that aids task assignment and decision making, encouraging cross-team collaboration. 
  • Gaining real-time, company-wide visibility of all active projects and dependencies.
  • And many more...

In Summary

Even though the engineering/product development process is considered very linear, Agile practices can help it become more efficient and adaptive to changing requirements. Some of the main problems that Agile helps engineering companies solve include:

  • Long time to market / Late value delivery - through prototyping, creating MVPs and frequent product demonstration
  • Inefficient work processes - through workflow visualization and its continuous optimization
  • Communication gaps between engineering teams and other stakeholders - through introducing feedback loops/cadences for alignment, such as Daily Stand-ups, Replenishment meetings, etc.

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