Monthly Archives: April 2009

More Proof That Agile Works

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how agile—and Scrum, especially—can help organizations weather this economic downturn. After all, by employing a project management framework that helps teams to continuously improve their own processes, an organization can essentially do more with less. But in this article from the March 9th edition of the Wall Street Journal, we get a little empirical evidence that agile values pay off.

According to reporters Timothy Aeppel and Justin Lahart, many U.S. manufacturers haven’t been hit as hard by the recession as companies in other industries. The reason? Over the past few decades, Lean Manufacturing ideas and techniques—the same concepts that led to the agile movement in software—have helped them streamline operations to the extent that many complex operations are handled by only a few highly skilled individuals. As a result, employers have been able to avoid making dramatic cuts, while employees have been able to enjoy a heightened sense of job security. From an even bigger picture standpoint, Lean Manufacturing helped ensure that the American manufacturing sector was one of the last industry’s to begin feeling the pain of the recession.

Most relevant to our discussions of agile techniques and project management in general was a description of a team at Parker Hannifin Corp. in Spartanburg, South Carolina:

“At Parker’s Spartanburg plant, five workers make the tiny plastic rings that become seals on aerosol cans. Each member of the group runs a different set of high-speed machines doing a distinct step, such as extruding long noodles of plastic, grinding them or cutting them into final product.”

For Scrum practitioners, this approach to team composition is very familiar; we call them “cross-functional” teams. And just like with development teams, the value of grouping individuals with varying skill sets (that do not necessarily overlap) is that the team can share their unique perspectives to collaborate strategically, while carrying the entire project to completion without handing it off to someone outside of the team. As the article goes on to explain, this arrangement also offers employers cost-cutting options other than layoffs.

“The group can curb production several ways short of layoffs. Two workers can complete the first two steps in one day, then the other three workers can finish those products the next day, essentially cutting everyone’s hours by half. Or, all five can take whole days off together. But permanently pulling one or two of them out of the mix is far more difficult to accomplish, and could make it impossible for the line to operate efficiently.”

Perhaps unwittingly, the reporters have described a kind of process of self-organization, in which how the work gets done is secondary to the fact that it is satisfactorily completed by the deadline (and without going into the red). But, above all, I found this article to be a fascinating real world example of how cross-functional teams do, in fact, help organizations do more with less.