To Agile or Not to Agile: That is the Question for Manufacturers (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by Maziar Adl
Maziar Adl
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Product planning for durable goods 

Seeing first-hand what our durable goods manufacturing clients face daily as they aim to update their processes got us thinking about what it really means to effect change in their environment. What tangible and intangible factors must be considered. How to approach an endeavor that they perceive will append their entire product management operation. Naturally, we mean the “switch” from more traditional Waterfall models to newer Agile ones.


As you read this 3-part series, keep in mind that the way the journey to Agile is embarked upon and how the broader team perceives all the changes can turn the tides to success or failure.

Agile vs. Waterfall Product Planning 

The two are often thought of as methodologies or frameworks, which they are of course, but it’s most helpful to start off thinking about Agile and Waterfall in terms of mindset.

A structured, often rigid approach. The planning is done upfront and changes are hard to make. As you and your team move through the planned phases, each one has to be completed before the next one can begin.

A more flexible approach. Planning is still done, but it isn’t as “set in stone,” allowing for changes where possible throughout the development cycle, and permeating stages. Meaning, the phases can but don’t have to be linear. It gives freedom to jump from one stage to the next, and then jump back if needed.

Melinda Harrington, Enterprise Agile Coach at Woolworths Group writes, “In Waterfall, members of a team,  work on their part of a project sequentially: define, design, build, test, deploy and maintain. Practices used by teams working in a more Agile way lead away from Waterfall with the aim of better flow, more teamwork, and a greater focus on business value. Together, Agile team members focus on delivering outcomes rather than individually delivering a single pre-defined component of a project.”

For more detail on the general pros and cons of Waterfall vs. Agile, see here. However, for a much more comprehensive view of how these frameworks play out in hardware/hard goods/durable goods/manufactured goods–however you think of it in your own industry–read on.

Durable goods vs. software development

manufacturing-operationsIt’s worthwhile to point out that this topic may be confusing. There remains a large pool of business people that continue to interchange project management and product management (see Life of a Product Manager here). Once we make it past that distinction and land firmly with a product, another factor should be brought to light: Agile frameworks got their start in software development, and are still very much used in that environment. This makes sense. Code is easier to change as you’re working on it. Software development is a natural fit for more flexible processes and the ability to ship products faster. Although of course there’s still a risk, there’s a huge difference between pushing a software update, should changes need to be made post-release, and the realities for durable goods, such as having to issue a product recall or persuading the customer to invest in the next version of something they already purchased.

If we were to rewrite the Manifesto for Agile Software Development to fit manufactured goods, it might go something like this:

We are uncovering better ways of developing products and solutions by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over unyielding processes and inefficient tools
  • Quick-to-market solutions over comprehensive program management
  • Customer wants and needs over internal requirements
  • Responding to change over following a plan which no longer represents success in the customer's eyes

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Product planning for a durable goods manufacturer

So what does “going agile” really mean for a non-software product team? In other words, what does it mean to implement Agile product planning frameworks for physical products?

Practically, the challenges that can present are multiple.

  • Deconstructing the rigid culture that forms in the presence of an overbuilt waterfall process.
  • Believing the myth that agile is undisciplined, lacks foresight, and leaves issues to be solved another day.
  • Understanding where existing processes could have been more responsive if they were not so structured.
  • Believing that "we could do it twice as fast if we only could…[fill in the blank with the constraint that gets blamed for speed issues]."
  • Recognizing that some aspects of the old process may not get faster simply as a result of Agile, and determining the best way to manage those aspects in the new Agile habitat.
  • Changing a rigid belief system, that sounds like some version of "the only proven tooling method takes 12 months and a $10M commitment. Making changes is impractical."
  • Believing that “there are faster and less expensive tooling methods we have not previously explored” as part of the existing Waterfall model.

Instead, leaders need to encourage their teams to bring to the table or embrace new opportunities even if they clash with the current plan, as long as doing so is in the best interest of the customer or the business case.

Check back here next week for Part 2 of the Gocious 3-part series on manufacturing’s move to Agile: getting started in our new integrated world.

Schedule a personalized free demo of the Gocious platform and see how you can leverage Gocious on your journey to a more flexible and agile organization. 

Topics: Product Management

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