How a high-tech company optimises the development of its agile processes with a quick check

The high-tech segment of laser technology is characterised first and foremost by its rapid pace of development. Driven by constantly expanding technical capabilities and increasing customer demands, it is important for companies that want to take the top spot in their industry not only to react to market developments, but to be the driver of innovation. For example, the trend towards the miniaturisation of products, assemblies and components, which has existed for years, demands a continuous increase in precision. In order to meet these challenges, innovation must be implemented as a continuous process. It is important to systematically develop not just the technology, but also a company’s own working methods. In order to identify the existing sources of optimisation potential, a leading global German manufacturer had a quick check carried out by external experts. In this way, valuable insights for further development were able to be gained within a very short space of time.

Systematically developing agility and optimising product development

For a high-tech laser technology company, its own ability to innovate is a decisive factor for success. After all, at this level of quality, it is not a matter of reacting to developments, but rather of constantly setting new standards oneself. Early on, the German company Precitec GmbH & Co. KG, therefore, relied on new working methods to make its own development processes effective. The Product Development Process (PEP) and portfolio management were optimised. Agile working methods were implemented to this end within development. For support, Precitec brought on board the management consultants from Eschborn-based CO Improve, who specialise in automotive, mechatronics and electronics, and who were to identify a status quo by means of a quick check. Dr Stephan Biermann, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Precitec AG: “In the meantime, we have already gained some experience and are aware that the implementation of agile working methods is a process that should be checked and readjusted time and again. In this respect, CO Improve’s offer to carry out such a review in a very short time frame (and at a very manageable cost) was most welcome to us.”

Focused analysis

Of course, two days to assess the situation is nothing short of ambitious timing. The two CO Improve consultants entrusted with the implementation, therefore, relied on a structured process to capture those practices that were lived out in the company. In order to be able to assess the extent to which the topics of “agile working methods” and “implementation of the PDP” – which are the focus of the analysis – have been internalised and implemented, they first took part in various agile events. This meant no additional effort for the employees and the company. During a 15-minute Daily Scrum, a Sprint Review, a Sprint Retrospective and a Sprint Planning, the consultants observed how the team members and stakeholders interacted with each other. “When working together, you can often quickly see how consistently agile ways of working are actually implemented,” explains Gunther Reibe, Lead Consultant at CO Improve. “And sometimes it can be the small things that hinder team success in the long term.” In this case, for example, the consultants quickly discovered that the Scrum role distribution was not clear. In one team, for example, one member also acted as Scrum Master. What might even seem reasonable at first glance can actually lead to ambiguities and conflicts and, ultimately, has a negative impact on the results. “The Scrum Master’s task is to be a source of strong support in organisational terms, and to create framework conditions that enable the development team to concentrate fully on their tasks. In this role, he or she should be approachable at all times. The following example, in which one person is both Scrum Master and Product Owner, illustrates the conflict of interest:

In this example, the user of the product to be developed is simultaneously the “boss” of the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. The user desperately wants to see what he thinks is an important feature in the next version. However, it is the last sprint before the version is delivered, and sprint planning has already taken place. If a person has both roles, he or she knows that he or she cannot normally include the feature in the sprint and that it can only be included in the next version with considerable additional effort. How does the person decide in the conflict of interest? Is the person’s standing in the company and with the boss high enough to decide in favour of the process? How does the person moderate between the team and his own roles? Would he decide against his own boss, even at the risk of jeopardising his own job or career?

“SCRUM as a form of agile working offers an excellent basis – especially through its clear structures – to solve very complex tasks quickly (and with measurable efficiency) and to lead to the desired success,” adds Reibe. “If a team member were to take on the role of Scrum Master for another team, for example, the conflict described could be circumvented, of course, only as long as capacities permit. Within the team, however, it should be clear at all times who has which role and which competencies. Then, the relation depicted by the idea of “the more complex the task, the more agile the method used should be” – which is also shown in the Stacey Matrix – works.”

The quick check, therefore, also closely examined compliance with the specified roles and working methods. The aim was to arrive at well-founded capability assessments and implementable optimisation recommendations as quickly as possible. Of course, this also included ascertaining the things that are already being implemented with excellence. A good example of this at Precitec was the presentation of a new enclosure design as a digital mock-up of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This clearly demonstrated the advantages of being able to discuss development steps on a concrete sample. This also effectively avoids an undesired preoccupation with work processes, which does not belong in a Sprint Review, but should rather take place in the Sprint Retrospective. It is the right format, for example, to address problems in cooperation.

Different perspectives

Another important instrument in the quick check’s arsenal is well-structured interviews. Thanks to a neutral, external view and the possibility for the employees to express themselves freely and anonymously, possible weak points can be identified very quickly and specifically, meaning that valuable insights can be gained. At Precitec, the consultants conducted half-hour interviews with a total of ten employees who took on different roles in the teams. This enabled them to compare their own observations with different perspectives from the teams and arrive at a well-founded assessment.

Targeted recommendations

The results showed that many of the newly introduced methods and processes have already been implemented most effectively at Precitec. For example, the Product Development Process (PEP), which was optimised in 2013, is largely running smoothly and with pronounced efficiency. The agile working methods for the development of new “hardware products” were also already very well internalised on balance. Small corrections – such as the clear separation of roles, disciplined participation in events, active involvement in the reviews and constructive feedback from the stakeholders – was, once again, able to significantly increase efficiency in this area. The focus here was on clear prioritisation. Too many suggestions, ideas or functions in a product can often unintentionally increase the complexity of development tasks. By ensuring the structured description of the initial and target portfolio, as well as a clear prioritisation of the product features desired by these customers, this not only leads to increased customer satisfaction, but also reduces costs and enables internal process optimisation.

Convincing results

The quality of any evaluation is ultimately measured by the feasibility of the recommendations. “To be honest, we were positively surprised at how many optimisation approaches the CO Improve consultants were able to generate in such a short time. And our development teams have also benefited sustainably from the structured process of reflection and the specific recommendations for action,” confirms Dr Biermann. “I could imagine that such a quick check could also be a source of lasting experience for other companies and a helpful and promising instrument for further development.