In a turbulent and ever-changing environment, it can be easy to miss an opportunity or fail to hit the constantly moving target of customer needs. Short market release periods are essential and require high productivity in terms of product development.
Stage-Gate is a proven process for managing product-development projects in the manufacturing industry.
Born of the software-development industry, the Agile method came about as a way of managing the constant changes in required software features. Since initial planning for this type of project quickly becomes inadequate, a more flexible approach is called for.
Are these two methods compatible? Can the Agile method free up the functionalities of Stage-Gate? Can Stage-Gate provide a better framework for the Agile method in a manufacturing context?
At first glance, these two methods are complete opposites:
|Stage-Gate focuses on:||Agile focuses on:|
|Large multidisciplinary team||Small technical team|
|Procedures and tools||Individuals and interactions|
|Exhaustive documentation||Operational prototype|
|Business Case||Customer feedback|
|Following a plan||Adaptation to change|
The Stage-Gate process covers the entire project, from initial idea to launch. It defines the deliverables required at each project stage for all functions throughout the company (marketing, engineering, production, etc.). Each Gate is a Go/Kill decision about whether to invest resources in the next stage. The project portfolio goes through a funnel, which means that only the best projects survive to the last stages. Thus, the product is well defined from the outset, but the schedule and budget are flexible.
The Agile method is more tactical and revolves around conducting a series of development sprints with customer feedback until a final product is obtained. The team focuses on producing a working prototype to be tested with the customer as soon as possible. Thus, the schedule and budget are set at the start of each sprint, but the product features are flexible and evolve throughout the project.
This is similar to the concepts of the Design Thinking feedback loop (listening, framing, creative thinking, prototyping, testing) and MVP (Most Valuable Product).
Can one compensate for the shortcomings of the other and generate a hybrid method that builds on the strengths of both? Can a manufacturer benefit from a method designed for software development?
Those who have tried it have incorporated design sprints, customer feedback loops and agile techniques (such as Scrum*) into each stage of their projects, particularly the typical development and testing stages.
This is what a hybrid process might look like:
Figure 1: Example of Incorporating the Agile Method into the Stage-Gate Process
These linear stages are comprised of series of design sprints, which usually last two to four weeks. Each sprint involves a designated team of two to nine people, whose objective is to produce a working product. The product’s required features are prioritized and the ones at the top of the list are the first to be addressed in a sprint. After the sprint comes the testing and feedback stage with the stakeholders (including the customer). Based on the feedback, the list of the product’s features is then modified as necessary until a product the customer is satisfied with is achieved.
Following are the main pros and cons encountered by manufacturers:
|Flexible design (adapts quickly to changes)||Difficulty in allotting dedicated resources
|Better productivity||Disconnect between Agile requirements and rewarded organizational behaviours|
|Better communication||Agile teams are isolated from the organization|
|Better prioritization||Project documentation is still too bureaucratic|
|Better team engagement||Too many meetings|
The Stage-Gate process continues to play a key role in managing individual projects and the overall project portfolio by providing visibility to management staff, who can then allocate resources to only the most viable projects.
In conclusion, the hybrid method significantly increases the chances of commercial success—the ultimate objective of any product-development project!
*Learn more about Scrum at : https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/agile-project- management-scrum-6269
Cooper, R.G. 2017. Winning at New Products: Creating Value through Innovation. Basic Books, New York. 432 pp.