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Agile Project Management in Manufacturing - Coming the Full Circle

22 Apr 2019

Agile methodology was originally designed to improve the software development process and deliver added value to the customers through working software. However, Agile is an approach that can be applied to various other processes aside from software development. Agile methodology actually has a long and complex relationship with the manufacturing sector.

Not to be confused with lean manufacturing, let's have a look at Agile project management in manufacturing.


The difference between Lean and Agile

Lean and Agile methodologies share both the differences and similarities. Lean is a Japanese concept developed by Taiichi Ohno back in the 1950-60s who is considered the father of the Toyota Production System later known as Lean manufacturing. Lean methodology focuses on eliminating waste and focusing only on what delivers value in the manufacturing process.

Lean manufacturing played an important role in the development of approaches that would fall under the agile umbrella in 2001 and a few that appeared later. Among other things, Agile sought to deliver the value of Lean principles into the software development and project management, in which it was very successful by the way. Lean manufacturing emphasizes on several principals. For instance:

  • Production should be based on demand and not supply. Something should be made when someone orders it rather than it being made in a hope someone will want to buy it.
  • Production will be most efficient when conducted in as small as possible batch sizes rather than batches that will exploit the economies of scale.
  • Focus on quality by increasing both output and efficiency.
  • Workers are responsible for defining the way they'll work, and not managers.
  • Kaizen - instead of carrying out tasks over and over again, workers should continuously improve the way they work instead.

Although similar in nature, Lean and Agile methodologies work differently, which is why it's important not to confuse these two methods when we are talking about manufacturing.

Agile returns to manufacturing

Even though Agile was based, in most part, on Lean methodologies, it was conceptualized for software development. There it has evolved over time and now Agile project management has found its way to various other industries - some close to software development such as video game development and some not so close, like healthcare.

Now, it's finding its way back to the manufacturing processes where it can deliver improved efficiency, reliability and additional focus on customer value, among other things. This has given birth to Agile manufacturing that still differs from its Lean counterpart.

As an example, Lean focuses on eliminating anything that has no value to work, i.e., waste. In addition, it puts an emphasis on the system itself or the way the teams operate as a whole.

On the other hand, Agile focuses on an iterative approach to meet the customer's needs by not committing to the end product until every demand or requirement is known in advance. Therefore, the main difference between the two is that Lean looks to eliminate ineffective ways of working while Agile looks to find better ways to develop products through iterative delivery.


How Agile manufacturing works?

Agile manufacturing works best when small teams are involved. That way, manufacturers can rely on effectiveness, collaboration and speed of their teams to deliver work. Simply put, Agile manufacturing is a combination of strategies and technologies that allow manufacturers to gain a competitive advantage and ensure customers satisfaction.

In addition, Agility allows developers to have a clear vision of what they have to create, which shortens the development cycles and allows processes to change based on feedback. Also, Agile allows manufacturing teams to adapt to market changes quickly, as well as allows organizations to have flexible project management strategies that will help them keep up with the market shifts.

Furthermore, Agile manufacturing encompasses every part of an organization, such as factories, teams and even processes that are broken down into smaller modular components that can be adjusted and reorganized based on current needs.

This allows a reliable supply chain to be established, where competitive costs and flexible time tables are made possible. The work output is considered as a batch with proper adjustment and improvement between each batch that will ensure a strong competitive edge on the market. The fact of the matter is that the global economy can make you easily lose customers if you claim that time frames or product design aren't flexible enough to change.

Adopting Agile manufacturing into your organization

As with any Agile principles, adopting an Agile manufacturing methodology into your organization require a complete change of a collective mindset. The issue, however, occurs when an organization adopts Agile manufacturing only in theory while they keep the same underlying structure and processes.

Adapting only a partially Agile approach can result in an organization unwillingly hurting their product development, especially those who used to rely on the lean manufacturing methodology. Therefore, assess your organizational needs in order to determine if you're ready for Agile manufacturing. Agile is best suited for environments where there's low predictability and low volume but the need for variability is extremely high.

Agile began its journey by adopting many ideas and principles from Lean manufacturing and it went its own way towards software development. Now it has made a full circle by evolving into an iterative and adaptive strategy that can be used in manufacturing. Agile's evolutionary development has served it well and it has proven that the market need can only be met by improving the existing approaches into something better and more efficient.