An organization that produces and distributes food was having difficulty managing the IT needs of multiple business initiatives. The company needed to balance these initiatives in terms of money, time and priority, and create a technology roadmap that would allow the IT team to focus on one project at a time. The solution for this food company was to adopt the agile methodology in its decision-making.
Now, it has long-term initiatives going on behind the scenes, as well as release planning that focuses the entire organization on a certain production line, such as perishables. And the agile methodology has brought greater transparency throughout these initiatives and changed the company's management approach.
Manufacturers tend to focus on the practices aspect of agile, similar to how they might think about "just in time" or lean manufacturing. And there are simple ways to use agile practices to improve teams, improve efficiency and increase synchronization. But at its core, agile is a management methodology of practices and values.
The agile approach to management is to focus on the goal, which is to supply the customer. Manufacturers have tended to focus on how to optimize operations to minimize costs, and how to accomplish tasks with less input and fewer people. But with agile manufacturing, you focus on the end result and allow the manufacturing process to be directed in part by the people who actually do the work.
This requires managers to take on different roles: Instead of supervising and micromanaging, their role is to enable and nurture self-organized teams. These self-organized teams use a dynamic type of decision-making to do their work, replacing more traditional task-based approaches. Some managers struggle with this role change because they perceive it as a loss of control.
But the command-and-control approach has its limitations, and agile manufacturing encourages the development of other values, such as continuous communication and radical transparency. In terms of communication, agile promotes a different, horizontal form of conversation, not just vertical conversations within isolated groups. In agile manufacturing, one group doesn't simply finish their part of the work and exit the process. Since the whole value of the item has to be delivered to the end user, that group's work is just one piece of a larger whole that has to be successful.
In terms of transparency, agile gives you a clearer picture of what's happening throughout the system, breaking down silos of information. Again, this requires a change in culture, because this transparency also brings flaws to the surface. But for manufacturers, it's also one of the most transformative aspects of agile methodology. In an environment where you have a horizontal conversation and a lot of transparency, some things you encounter might be painful, but it gives you an opportunity to address problems and improve.
In the end, to get the real value of agile manufacturing, you need to look beyond day-to-day practices and understand the implications for your management practices. Ask yourself: Would self-organizing groups and dynamic scheduling have a value for your business? Would it help increase throughput and provide products to your end users that better meet their needs? If the answers are yes, then you might want to consider an agile approach.
If you try to bring agile in to solve a problem like cross-team communication, you need to support it on the management side with a high degree of transparency. Without committing to that transparency, you'll find that people soon drop the practices because they're not very useful on their own. But if you're willing to think differently about the structure of your manufacturing process, agile could transform your organization.