SCRUM in traditional branches and industries – A personal experience

The way agile project management and SCRUM can help to find new ways and speed up projects in traditional industries while driving through a phase of uncertainty

While some analogies to fundamental principles of agile project management can be found in modern production environments, such as lean-principles and continuous improvement, I was always wondering why agile is mostly related to software development projects. 

At small and mid-size companies in industries such as machine manufacturing we often find a more traditional project management approach. What is completely fine and fits perfectly for most of the operations in creating a next gen product in an incremental approach. This work behavior, environment, and culture is deeply integrated in the organization and processes. 

It can become quite a challenge if something changes radically, like evolving new markets, technology changes, or a significant larger request of an existing customer. 

I faced once such a challenge at a mid-size company in southern Germany with a long history with fully automatic mailing and sorting systems. One of the major banking groups maintains a long business relationship with this company. We knew that they are just about to renew a quite large amount of their machine park for automatic mailing and we wanted to get into a pole position for the upcoming bidding. The only thing we didn’t know what the exact requirements are. 

Since the development team is used to work with a full set of detailed specifications, we needed a new approach to accommodate this situation.

On a high level the entire machine can be split into individual modules with dedicated tasks. We had a sales man with close contact to the customer on a regular basis. He became our product owner. His role was to define what is the minimum of modules we need for a productive machine and defined the basic requirements (the minimum viable product). This machine modules became our user stories, prioritized by the product owner. During sprint planning the team of developers discussed the stories with the product owner and broke it down into individual tasks for further estimates. Every two weeks we repeated this interaction and the team could present the work being done in the time in between. 

The team made significant progress with the development and were able to present a detailed demo to the customer before the request was even placed. This competitive advantage was key to ensure the desired business. 

By doing SCRUM and being agile we found a way to drive this project forward through a phase of high uncertainties and gained time upfront. After we reached a level of sufficient information, we could pass this project into the regular traditional project management processes. 

Myself represented the role of the Scrum-Master while actually hired as project manager. For me was the key of success for this endeavor not to mention this new terms like Scrum, product owner, sprint, etc. to the organization. I just defined new processes and roles and let them do the work. It didn’t feel like we had to cross new obstacles of a new framework or methods while being in an anyway busy work environment and could just focus on the work needed to be done. 

For me this was the proof, that SCRUM not only works, it also works in traditional work environments and helps us to speed up significantly. 

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