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Can Your Hardware Company Become Agile?

By: Jim DeMarco


There’s a common misconception surrounding hardware development processes, and it’s holding many companies back from meeting their true potential. Unlike its software counterpart, many believe that hardware design is too restricted by physical limitations, is too complex, and cannot benefit from the flexibility offered by agile practices — but this isn’t the case. The truth is agile has its roots outside the software world, and what’s holding back most hardware companies is the inability to realize this fact. Agile is simply a set of values that drive efficiencies by adopting certain core best practices. Like those who were skeptical of changing their waterfall approaches to developing software, hardware companies must jump on the bandwagon to reap the benefits of iterative, innovative, and collaborative product expansion.

In a digital world where expectations are high, and customer feedback is abundant, engineers and product developers are struggling to keep up with the ever-fluctuating demands of consumers while maintaining stakeholder engagement. It’s a tight space to navigate, made worse by adhering to practices such as the rigid Stage-Gate model that limits creativity and leads to costly product launch delays.

If companies want to drastically improve their product-to-market timelines and improve their customer experience, it’s time to realize that agile is not just for software — it can (and should be) used for hardware, too.

Why Hardware Should Consider Becoming Agile

When someone mentions Agile, software applications usually come to mind. The Agile Manifesto has redefined project management, and its ubiquity is a testament to the framework’s proven efficacy. But if so many organizations continue to preach the benefits of agile, why are their hardware teams falling behind?

The state of software and firmware development is constantly evolving and continuously improving, yet hardware remains tethered to the same legacy techniques that leave little room for change. While software and firmware teams have adopted Scrum and Kanban frameworks and are working in sprints to iteratively and collaboratively build and test their code, the hardware team gets stuck in a loop of waiting for upstream design decisions, requirement approvals, and budget constraints. This lack of flexibility creates functional silos that separate hardware from their counterpart groups and prevent them from making product alterations in tandem as the software side changes.

Applying agile practices to the hardware production process can significantly reduce delays and establish cohesive cross-functional teams.

Benefits of Agile & Scrum for Hardware

We know that agile works for hardware — the foundation of agile principles were derived from the automakers at Toyota and their lean manufacturing methodology, which they refer to as their “efficiency revolution.” And other big names like Tesla are clearly utilizing practices inspired by the methodology to drive success. Practices such as the Gemba walk, derived from Japanese meaning “actual place,” encourage leadership to go to where value is actually being created: the front lines. Here leaders can see firsthand what may be holding their teams back and quickly realize one of the key components of the agile mindset — reducing waste.

An Agile approach to hardware, and specifically the use of a Scrum framework, provides numerous benefits, such as:

  • Allows leadership to react to rapidly changing priorities
  • Promotes a sustainable model for forecasting and delivery
  • Instills a culture of open and honest communication
  • Empowers teams to self-manage and focus on quality
  • Drives continuous improvement across the organization
  • Improves speed and effectiveness of product testing
  • Decreases waste from stockpiling inventory that is later proven faulty 

In the same way that a software company follows a scrum framework and uses iterative sprints to develop, test, and progress the product lifestyle, a hardware team can do the same. 

Removing Stage Gates from the Hardware Lifecycle

The manufacturing life cycle of many hardware companies tends to follow a traditional waterfall approach, also known as a Stage-Gate (or phase-gate) process. Here, product development goes through six phases: Idea Generation, Scoping, Business Case, Development, Testing, and Launch. These phases leave little room for flexibility, but we can do away with restrictive Stage-Gate processes for good by adopting agile best practices.

Agile creates room for engineers to take an iterative approach to product development that includes sprint planning and sprint reviews to keep stakeholders engaged with the project while still making headway on necessary changes. Like the concepts of stubs and mocks used as placeholders for eventual functionality when coding software, using computer-aided design (CAD) and other tools for digital engineering, hardware teams can produce virtual drawings, 3D-printed models, and simulations during their development phase. This method of work results in proof of concepts and prototypes that engineers can test within short sprints. This idea of failing fast to learn faster allows a company to avoid buying physical parts until they are more confident in a design, thus eliminating waste. It enables the company to capture learning that benefits future product strategy and gives teams more latitude to explore alternatives and derive knowledge from uncertainty.

Most importantly, operating under a scrum framework allows mechanical engineers to work alongside those creating the firmware and software. Whether engineers are testing temperature limitations or weight-bearing levels, by taking a task that is often done in isolation and transforming it so that cross-functional teams can leverage their skills together, hardware developers can massively improve speed and quality of delivery.

Designing and Building for Change

Being agile has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, leading many organizations to claim they’re implementing agile practices, yet many fail to reap the rewards. The problem is, they’re simply renaming legacy practices rather than truly retooling the necessary aspects of their business’s functions. More often than not, any immediate benefits of implementing agile are diminished by what Forbes mentions as loyalty to traditional bureaucratic tendencies. These companies wind up doing agile instead of truly being agile. To be successful, first and foremost, there must be a cultural and structural shift that has buy-in from senior execs to front-line employees. 

Additional keys to success include: 

  • Recognizing why there is a need to change
  • Identifying current state challenges
  • Agreeing there is a problem to solve 

With proper stakeholder engagement, there is not only an understanding of the predictability and clarity that will result but motivation by all to rally around solving the existing problems.

Designing and building for agility, particularly when applied to something more concrete like hardware manufacturing, is a multi-faceted journey. When organizations set out to employ an agile methodology, they often place too much focus on the short-term and neglect to take actions that benefit long-term goals. Working in sprints is crucial, but it’s only part of the equation. Hardware must have the ability to evolve independently, but more importantly, it must be able to integrate smoothly with other components. This is where Scaled Agile comes in.

Achieving Long-Term Flexibility with Scaled Agile

A scaled agile approach further encourages collaboration, improves risk management, and establishes a dependency tracking method that helps improve alignment across teams. While a software engineer uses extreme programming or continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) to maximize output, mechanical and electrical engineers may become several steps behind. And just when they believe they’ve finally caught up, the software has already been altered, rendering weeks of waiting and building obsolete.

To help ensure that no single component of a project lags behind others, scaled agile begins by employing a larger, more collaborative planning event, during which the activities and objectives for multiple scrum teams are discussed. This format allows individual teams, with their own backlog of work, to build and test iteratively while leveraging Portfolio Management to drive the priorities for the overall solution. From here, input from all groups is aligned — System Architects, Program Managers, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, etc. 

After planning and during the sprint activity, there is a Scrum of Scrums ceremony to foster integration between teams as soon as possible and manage dependencies and risks, ensuring the pieces of the puzzle from multiple scrums fit together. The challenge of hardware output needing to coincide with software and firmware controls is also solved, as software and firmware teams coordinate with hardware to complete their coding when the mechanical engineers need those controls. This workstream ultimately leads to fewer fixes later, a faster launch, and higher product quality that impresses both stakeholders and customers.

With significant improvements to workstreams such as this, it’s no secret why frameworks like the one pictured below exist to coordinate scaled agile approaches for hardware companies. Even the most common name in scaled agile — SAFe — recognizes that hardware can be scaled. And by adopting frameworks such as these, companies can finally realize that agile is not only for software — ushering in a new era for hardware design and development.

Graph of MAHD Framework Core, from Auxilum ('Modified Agile for Hardware Development')
SOURCE: Auxilium – ‘Modified Agile for Hardware Development’ 

Agile Hardware Development with SEI

Limiting the agile methodology to only software applications may be stifling your company’s potential, but SEI’s expert consultants can help. We understand that an agile transformation is not just a technology shift, but a cultural one, and every adoption of this practice can be different. Whether you are a global retailer, healthcare, finance, or medical device organization, we develop a custom and pragmatic roadmap to guide leadership and front-line employees from skepticism to advocacy. 

The goal of any agile transformation is to improve internal operations that ultimately create a better customer experience. It empowers the people at your company, promotes a more sustainable pace of work, and improves morale by allowing teams to celebrate their successes more frequently. From training programs to change management, our expert consultants can help hardware teams run autonomously, test more often, and work in tandem with software and firmware teams to exceed product delivery expectations. We will introduce your company to core agile principles, pilot the experience with one scrum team, coach you through the transition, consider potential impediments, and develop effective communication plans.

At SEI, we’re here to show you exactly how to adopt and scale agile practices to meet your company’s unique needs in a way that works for your business’s goals and budget.

Contact us today to learn more about adding value to your hardware development’s success through Agile by reaching out to us. Or take a few extra moments to explore our other capabilities here.


Jim DeMarco


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