Scrum and Agile Manufacturing


For insiders, when someone refers to Agile methodology, the first thing that comes to mind is the so-called “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”, originated back in 2001 by seventeen developers who met in Snowbird, Utah, to discuss development methods. The result was a manifesto based on 12 founding principles, listed in the following article (you can also download them by clicking here). The agile approach in software development focuses on:

  • Individuals and interactions RATHER THAN processes and tools
  • Functioning software RATHER THAN complete documentation
  • Collaboration with the customer RATHER THAN on contract negotiation
  • Responding to change RATHER THAN following a plan

Many of these concepts are borrowed from the Lean Methodology, from which the agile methodology is evidently inspired.

What is Scrum?

The Agile approach has evolved into a set of frameworks and practices, in which Scrum plays a key role. The key elements of the framework are summarised below:

  • The product backlog: it contains the requirements for a system, expressed as a priority list of elements. These include both functional and non-functional customer requirements. A product backlog element is a unit of work small enough to be completed by the team in a sprint iteration
  • The Scrum: the product is built in a series of fixed-length iterations called scrums, which provide teams with a framework for delivering the task on a regular basis
  • The Sprint: is a time frame during which a specific work must be completed and prepared for review. Each sprint begins with a meeting in which the product owner and the development team agree on what will be delivered during the sprint. The duration of the sprint is determined by the Scrum Master
  • The product owner: the person with final authority, representing the client’s interests in the prioritisation of the backlog and in questions on requirements
  • The Scrum Master: is the facilitator for the team and the product owner
  • The Scrum Team: usually consisting of 5-10 members. The team is usually cross-functional

The following figure summarises the Scrum Framework.


Product development in manufacturing and the Waterfall approach

The Agile methodology developed as a methodological approach in software development to respond quickly to changes in customer requirements. In fact, software development by its very nature lends itself very well to changing requirements in a hurry: changing lines of code, frequent testing and verification with the customer requires an effort of coordination between team members, but does not generally require additional investment of resources. On the contrary, in the context of hardware development, changing requirements on the run may require the modification of material requirements, tooling, Part Program changes, and thus a significant impact in terms of cost and time. In fact, changes often involve sourcing material and components from suppliers, resulting in longer development times. For this reason, the Waterfall approach, which is more linear and sequential and less cyclical, has always been the most widely used approach in manufacturing: typically, the product is developed through a series of activities (stages) that end with their approval (gates).

Scrum approach in manufacturing: is it possible?

However, the Scrum approach shows some clear advantages over the Waterfall approach, first and foremost greater responsiveness to changes and customer requirements. This is why, in many manufacturing contexts, there is an increasing need for greater agility in the field of product development, consequently borrowing the Agile approach from software development. In this sense, one of the main pioneers of the use of Scrum in the manufacturing field is Joe Justice, who has a number of important collaborations in this regard, first and foremost Tesla.

In an interview in March 2021, Joe Justice, an expert consultant on the Agile methodology who helped Tesla in the implementation of his production system, describes his experience. One of the points worth dwelling on is the ability of Elon Musk, and therefore the number 1 of the company, to experience the Genba compared to his colleagues from other leading companies in the sector. In fact, the interview reads: 

“There’s a video of Elon Musk saying ‘this is where I sleep’ and that’s a sleeping bag in the paint shop. “Going up the tree of the hierarchy” does not mean “going up”, because the leaders work in the workshop. Ok, who is their “boss”? Oh, I’m here. I just worked with them 20 minutes ago. Oh, who is your boss? Oh, Elon. Elon is sleeping over there and he was just working with me on this robot, or you know, in this area. Actually, most of the time I was there, Elon was at SpaceX, but he slept right there. And just to be honest, I think that’s why German manufacturing companies don’t stand a chance. I’ve worked with the Bosch board of directors and BMW executives and met some executives from Porsche and Volkswagen, and none of them will ever sleep in a factory, and none of them will program a robot, and none of them will glue assemblies. internals on an assembly line because, one, you need and two, that’s how you learn. None of them will. They are “business people”. They are “business people” and will never be able to compete with Tesla. And they will die.”


In the figure above, the key points described by the interview are summarised in a chart:

  • first impression: Tesla is a futuristic company that embraces lean principles and the use of digital solutions instead of paper solutions
  • vision: the company shares and communicates its vision to employees and perceives the potential of being able to make a positive impact in society
  • the main metric for measuring success is the quality of the product
  • 12-hour shifts: it is necessary to create a stimulating work environment for people to be able to take such long shifts

Agile Manufacturing is not only hardware product development

While in the software domain, Agile and thus Scrum represent a well-established approach to developing new products, in the manufacturing field there has actually been talk of Agile, at least in the literature, since 1991. In fact, the term ‘Agile Manufacturing’ was originally coined in a major report entitled “21st Century Manufacturing Enterprise Strategy” published by the Iacocca Institute at Lehigh University in the United States, thus predating the Agile Manifesto.

In this report, the term ‘agile manufacturing’ is characterised as a unique form of industrial competitiveness for US companies in which changes in the roles of customers, suppliers and competing companies can occur to take advantage of market opportunities in order to satisfy individual customer preferences.

Various definitions of Agile Manufacturing have been provided over the years:

  • Iacocca 1991: “Agility means a production system with extraordinary capabilities to meet the rapidly changing needs of the market (speed, flexibility, customers, competitors, suppliers, infrastructure, responsiveness). A system that moves quickly (speed and reactivity) between product models or product lines (flexibility), ideally in response to customer demand in real time (customer needs and wishes)”
  • Goldman, 1994: “Agility is a global strategic response to the fundamental and irreversible changes that are occurring in the dominant system of commercial competition in the” First World” economy”
  • Booth, 1996: “Agile manufacturing is a manufacturing vision that is a natural development of the original ‘lean manufacturing’ concept. In lean manufacturing, the emphasis is on cost reduction. The need for organizations and structures to become more flexible and responsive to customers has led to the concept of “agile” production as a differentiation from the “lean” organization”
  • Yusuf, Sarhadi 1999: “Agility is the successful exploration of competitive foundations (speed, flexibility, innovation, proactivity, quality and profitability) through the integration of reconfigurable resources and best practices in a knowledge-rich environment to deliver products and customer-oriented services in a rapidly changing market environment”

The concept of agility makes its way into production thanks to the changes that have occurred over the centuries and mainly due to:

  • technological evolution: new technologies make it possible to reconfigure a system in a much faster way
  • evolution in the way of producing goods: greater flexibility is required in the face of greater variability in demand in terms of volumes and production mix
  • evolution in customer needs, that asks for products that are increasingly customized and adapted to its specific needs

How to implement Agile Manufacturing?

As you may have noticed, Agile Manufacturing is not a defined and structured framework, but rather a set of practices and strategies that enable companies to react quickly to macro-economic, socio-political and customer needs changes in order to make the company and the production system more adaptive, resilient and sustainable, in a word to ensure greater competitiveness..

If you want to learn more, we recommend our book “Agile Manufacturing: strategies for adaptive, resilient and sustainable manufacturing” available on Amazon.

For more info, don’t hesitate to contact us, we will be happy to assist you in your Agile path!

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