The Auto Industry and Agile

You might have noticed: American auto makers are in a little pickle. Interestingly, Japanese manufacturers are doing just fine. What’s that have to do with agile? Well, if you trace agile’s roots back, one place they lead to is lean manufacturing, a production practice that attempts to eliminate waste in an effort to create more value for the end consumer. The majority of the lean philosophy is based on the Toyota Production System, which employs two foundational concepts: Just-in-time or “flow” and “autonomation.” In the case of the former, manufacturers work to reduce hiccups in the manufacturing process, thereby creating an interrupted “flow” of production. Many would argue that if an organization can optimize its “flow,” then all other improvements will naturally follow suit. For example, if flow is maximized, then there will be no surplus inventory. Likewise, if manufacturers only focus on the features that customers value the most, this simplifies product design to the extent that only those customer-valued features are produced. The second point, “autonomation,” attempts to integrate mechanical automation with human workers in such a way that the machines are optimized to help humans do their jobs best.

For those of us working in agile development environments, there are a number of discernible similarities between lean manufacturing and agile. First off, what the team builds is driven by customer demand. This shows an understanding that independent speculation over requirements is, of itself, a useless endeavor. What matters is creating the right product—and the key to that is by paying attention to what customers want. Secondly, lean distinguishes between its “resources”: Machines and humans are very unique entities with particular strengths and weaknesses. Strangely, those distinctions often disappear in production settings. Lean’s optimization of mechanical counterparts to aid the team is similar to a ScrumMaster’s mandate to remove impediments. Clearly, when a team is empowered to do what it does, the product—and end consumer—benefits.

At this point, saving the American auto industry is not as easy as turning to lean manufacturing or even agile development for the answers, but, moving forward, it could certainly help these companies reduce waste and stretch what resources they still have.

Posted under Agile Methodology

This post was written by admin on December 19, 2008

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