Agile working at agricultural machinery manufacturer

In some projects, there is simply something wrong. Time and costs spin out of control. The results remain disappointing and the mounting pressure from management, unfortunately, does little to help. A large agricultural machinery manufacturer had to endure such an experience during the development of a new planting machine – until the company’s management pulled the ripcord and, together with a consulting firm specialising in agile product development, put the entire project on a completely new agile footing. And, although the conversion to the Scrum methodology – which was new to the company – was an extremely ambitious task, the results show that the decision was correct and forward-looking for the business as a whole.

Sustainably optimising product development with Scrum

The unpleasant mix of a high degree of organisational and technical complexity, unrealisable schedules and cost plans, changing requirements and a (now) frustrated development team had led to an important development project threatening to trail off into oblivion at a long-established agricultural machinery company. In particular, due to the lack of clarity within the project, it no longer seemed possible to identify concrete causes for its poor progress. There was, therefore, no question that something had to change. In this situation, the idea arose to approach the project anew with agile methods.

Agility is a question of culture

In addition to other providers, the experts from CO Improve, a consulting firm specialising in the agile development of complex mechatronic products, were invited to initial preliminary discussions. As part of an “Agile Awareness Day”, a working day was initially dedicated to the topic of “agile corporate culture”, in order to discuss this with all members of the management team. The aim was to make everyone involved aware of what an agile pilot project means for the entire company – and top management as a consequence. CO Improve project manager Gerrit Gerland explains: “Our experience has shown that, although many companies are interested in agile working, they are not really prepared to create the necessary framework conditions. This would mean that failure is all but predestined. Instead, all those responsible should understand in advance exactly which approaches they will introduce into their company and how leadership and working culture will change.” The management team of this agricultural machinery manufacturer was finally convinced by this careful approach and the concept underpinning the agile Scrum methodology. Thus, the project was able to be implemented step by step.

Step one: Implementation of the change team

In order to determine exactly where there was a need for change and how the obstacles could be removed, a superordinate “change” project team was first formed. This team was initially familiarised with the iterative approach of Scrum. “Central elements of Scrum are clearly defined roles for all team members and the organisation of work in so-called ‘sprints’, which repeatedly lead to a usable result” adds Gerland. The “Product Backlog” – which defines all the requirements for the product and the goals of the project – serves as an important source of orientation. The developers, in consultation with the so-called “Product Owner”, draw from these comprehensive requirements for each Sprint the tasks that experience has shown they can accomplish in the allotted time. The team is supported by the “Scrum Master”, who is tasked with helping the team to apply Scrum practices correctly, removing obstacles and providing the team with the resources and means it needs.  

Step two: Reducing complexity

Very quickly, the change team identified the overflowing complexity of the planned project as a key obstacle. “Therefore, a split occurred within the overall project; henceforth, the project included a number of modules and functional assemblies”, Gerland continues. Modules and assemblies were then handled by module teams and a functional team, making the development task per team much more manageable and clearly defined. The higher-level control was taken over by a team with responsibility for the overall machine.

Step three: Focusing and prioritising

In order to give all the developers involved the opportunity to focus on the tasks at hand, the project had to be clearly prioritised within the company as a whole. Consequently, this meant that all team members would devote at least 80 per cent of their resources, i.e. at least four days per week, exclusively to the project. In order to implement this focus in practice, a spatial separation was carried out: The development teams were housed in a separate building. But this alone was not enough. In fact, the prioritisation had a significant impact on other parts of the company, too. Even the 80 per cent rule meant that other employees had to take over “old” team members’ tasks. This rule caused no small amount of resentment among department heads and colleagues. Together with the consulting partner, the change team developed a communication concept to undertake intensive diplomacy work aimed at winning the hearts and minds at all company levels and to bring all stakeholders on board.

Step four: Redefine your own understanding of your role

A certain amount of convincing was also required vis-a-vis management. Even though their members had consciously decided in favour of the agile project, it was not always easy to leave the usual controlling impulses and routines aside in the context of an agile culture, to display trust and appreciation for the team and to give clear and constructive feedback. Gerland: “In this context, it was helpful to agree that management was only informed about the current project status in the regular “Sprint Reviews” and only here did they have the opportunity to give feedback to the team. Feedback from the team to the leaders proved to be just as crucial as feedback to the team.” After all, in an agile culture, the company’s leadership level primarily takes on the role of empowering employees so that they can solve their tasks. “This clearly outlined the task setting of the company’s leadership team”, explains Gerland. “And this was: Strengthen employees’ personal scope of responsibility, remove obstacles from their path and create the best possible framework conditions for them.”

Agile success equals joint success

As a result, the project is now running smoothly, on time and within budget. Surprisingly, the unrealistic original date for the presentation of the newly developed product only had to be postponed by a mere six months. The guarantee for success is the complete restructuring of the project and the cultural shift within management circles. What is even more pleasing is that, due to the successful agile cooperation in question, all participants – i.e. team members and stakeholders – can now identify wholeheartedly with the project and the new product development method. The company plans to continue working on other tasks in an agile way in the future. On balance, the company is aiming for a hybrid structure in which “straightforward” tasks are handled conventionally and complex challenges are handled agilely.