What Engineers Need to Know About Using Agile for Digital Transformation

Created by software developers, Agile has caught on as an effective framework for managing digitalization projects.

Agile is a term you’ll have come across. Like its close counterpart digital transformation, Agile is a concept that’s used broadly in articles and conferences about technology, but often without much clarity.

Engineers focused on design and manufacturing could view the ubiquity of enigmatic terms such as Agile and digital transformation as an unwelcome distraction. However, technology plays a crucial role in every modern business project and professionals in all industries must understand how to make the most of digital tools and data.

In this article, we’ll discuss the rise of Agile, explain how it’s being used to help companies deliver digital transformation projects, and demonstrate why this set of techniques is important to engineers who want to solve the problems they face.

What is Agile?

Agile is a project management approach that allows a team of professionals to take incremental and iterative steps towards a set goal.

Rather than a traditional waterfall approach, where a project is broken down into a series of set stages and presented to the stakeholder on completion, Agile relies on collaboration from the outset. People from across the business participate in an Agile project and they constantly check on progress to ensure the right outcomes are being achieved.

Where does Agile come from?

Agile is applied in a variety of ways across a range of industries, but its origins can be traced to the technology sector and specifically to software development.

Frustrated with waterfall techniques, 17 developers met in Utah in 2001 to discuss plans for a set of methods for producing software code faster and more efficiently. The result of these discussions was the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which outlines a set of values for developing software in an iterative manner.

These values include self-empowerment, collaboration and developing working software solutions that are honed carefully over time. The Manifesto has 12 principles, such as continuous delivery, trusting individual contributions and reflective team processes.

What are the major features of an Agile approach?

Agile is all about collaboration. A lean framework is often associated with Agile, where empowered teams work rapidly to reduce waste. Lean was pioneered by Toyota’s lean manufacturing processes and ‘just-in-time’ production cycles.

Other important Agile frameworks include Kanban, which is a lean method for managing work where features and deliverables are visualized on a board, and Scrum, where small teams break work into chunks, known as sprints, and review progress regularly.

Prominent Agile practices include a backlog of work that needs to be completed, a daily standup meeting to communicate issues, and a retrospective, which is held at the end of each iteration to consider key lessons.

What’s the link between Agile and digital transformation?

As Agile software development techniques became more widely applied, so the pace of technological change continued to quicken.

From the emergence of the cloud to the increase in mobility, and onto the rise of data analytics and artificial intelligence, businesses in every sector began using IT systems to power internal processes and external services.

Digital transformation has emerged as shorthand for businesses seeking to reinvent themselves on a foundation of digital data and technology. Whether it’s digitizing paper records, creating new electronic channels to market or analyzing data to produce new insights, companies can use technology to improve an existing business process.

Agile development has played a crucial role in many of these digitalization programs, especially the creation of IT applications. The successful rollout of these software-focused projects has encouraged engineers to start thinking about how Agile techniques can be used in other areas of IT, including digital transformation initiatives.

How is Agile used in digital transformation?

Digital transformation is challenging. Consultant McKinsey confirms in a report on digital transformation in resource-heavy industries that about 70 percent of initiatives fail to achieve their objectives. While the goal might be clear—such as using technology to boost the efficiency of manufacturing processes—reaching that point means overcoming hurdles.

Any manufacturing process is likely to rely on a range of systems, some of which could be wedded to manual systems that aren’t easy to automate. Many of these systems could be running on legacy technologies that use old-fashioned code. These systems could also be running in a range of disparate locations around the globe. Transforming this end-to-end process into a sleek, digital operation takes a huge amount of time and a coordinated effort.

Unfortunately, manufacturers often take a siloed approach to transformation, where business requirements aren’t linked to technological capabilities. Another common failure point is a desire to create a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t consider the unique circumstances of individual manufacturing operations.

Agile offers an alternative route to transformation. Rather than focusing solely on the goal, the initiative is split into smaller chunks. Each of these smaller projects includes sub-goals that are managed in an incremental and iterative manner. By splitting digital transformation into chunks, the change program is less overwhelming.

How is Agile being used to support digital transformation in engineering?

All kinds of companies are using Agile techniques to power their digital-enabled change programs. Here are a few examples:

  • Automotive giant Audi is using an Agile approach to ensure technology expertise matches business requirements. The IT team has created a platform known as Kubika O to support digital transformation. Business professionals use this platform to create secure, digital services for the company’s customers.
  • Bike manufacturer Ribble Cycles has enhanced its customer personalization tool BikeBuilder to make its business more agile. Instead of the manufacturing team having to manage 300 bikes setups, BikeBuilder uses data and logical reasoning to maintain customer choice while allowing the team to manage far fewer setups.
  • Infrastructure operator Network Rail used lean project delivery techniques, allied to a common data platform, collaborative techniques and digital twin technology, to plan updates to two major UK stations in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

What does a successful digital transformation look like?

The enigmatic nature of digital transformation means it’s tough to define success. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of business leaders believe their organization doesn’t have a clear path to its transformation goals, according to recent research from Microsoft.

Even when goals are reached, new challenges continue to emerge. Let’s be clear: there is no hard finish to digital transformation. Fast-changing business requirements allied to the rapid pace of technological evolution means new technology projects are always on the horizon.

The key message for engineering companies that are often wedded to legacy ways of working and heavy manufacturing processes is to create a nimble, technology-enabled platform that allows your business to move quickly when new business demands emerge.

What is the key take-away for engineering executives?

A strong example of nimble digital transformation is the approach being pioneered by Steve Capper, CIO at engineering and construction specialist SNC-Lavalin. The company currently uses about 5,000 pieces of software for heavy engineering and business information modelling from providers such as VMware, Bentley Systems, Autodesk and Esri.

Capper told engineering.com that his company is undertaking change programs that can take up to 18 months to complete. His aim is to consolidate enterprise applications and create a single IT platform for change, which allows the business to leverage its data for new initiatives that emerge. He says IT leaders looking to gain support for digital transformation must remove complexity.

“The successful CIO needs to have the confidence of the board and be able to articulate things in a simple fashion,” he says. “That attitude gets you a long way in when it comes to receiving support from the CEO and the board. They understand what I’m trying to tell them, and I don’t bamboozle them with too many ones and zeros.”