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History Lesson: Using Core Elements of Scrum in 1961?

22 January 2013

John Hill
Sony Pictures Entertainment (Through Randstad)



This article looks at a project that had nothing to do with software development but that practiced core elements of the Scrum framework in 1961, a quarter-century before Scrum was first described in 1986.


On March 27, 2012, a video titled Introducing Avanti 1963 was posted on YouTube, with the following description:

Studebaker was in trouble and headed for oblivion. The president of the company decided he needed a Hail Mary pass and reached out to star industrial designer Raymond Loewy to come up with a car that could save the company. Loewy assembled a team of young designers he kept locked up in Palm Springs, California, until they produced a vision of what he thought could perform the miracle. The car was a stunner, but it was too late to save Studebaker. . . 1

Raymond Loewy never locked up a team for any reason. When I revisited this story, which I had heard long ago, I realized that Loewy and his design team were, in 1961, actually practicing some of the core elements of the Scrum framework as defined below — but practicing Scrum before it had even been defined:

Scrum is an agile framework for completing complex projects. Scrum originally was formalized for software development projects, but works well for any complex, innovative scope of work. The possibilities are endless. . . . 2

Scrum was first described in a 1986 Harvard Business Review article3 that cited a 1981 survey of 700 U.S. companies, describing how organizations were becoming increasingly reliant on revenue from brand-new products (which was exactly the Studebaker situation 1961). The article described how some market leaders in Japan and the U.S. were thus approaching product development differently (introducing terms such as self-organizing project teams and overlapping development phases). And Studebaker was also trying, for the first time, to get a new automobile to market faster than ever before.

It's now accepted that Scrum works for software development. However, it's always interesting to learn about using Scrum for other purposes. This article is not intended to tell a "success story," nor to focus on the outcome of the initiative described here. This article instead looks at a project that had nothing to do with software development but that practiced core elements of the Scrum framework in 1961, a quarter-century before Scrum was first described. The project included early examples of:

  • "Co-location" of a "self-organizing team," including an agreement to be left alone by management
  • Product owner commitment
  • Collaboration (including "cross-cluster collaboration," described below)
  • Inspecting and adapting
  • Overlapping development (and other) phases

The Studebaker Corporation

Studebaker was founded in 1852 in South Bend, Indiana, soon becoming the world's largest producer of wagons for farmers, miners, and the military. Over the years the company diversified and thrived by producing a wide variety of high-quality products. Studebaker was also the first American automobile manufacturer.

By 1959, however, the company was in serious trouble. In February of 1961, it signed an agreement with Sherwood Egbert to be president. Egbert was an aggressive young executive hired to turn the company around. During his first discussion with Studebaker's board of directors, he proposed introducing a radical new car. On March 9, 1961, five weeks after signing on as president, Egbert asked Raymond Loewy to visit Studebaker's South Bend headquarters to discuss a new car project. Loewy is considered the "father of industrial design,"4 with a legacy too massive to discuss in this article. The point here is that Loewy was the best choice for this challenge.

First steps

When Egbert met Loewy on March 21, 1961, he said that they must introduce the most advanced automobile ever conceived at the April 1962 New York Auto Show — in just over a year. He told Loewy to get started because he wanted a finished mock-up right away. Loewy quickly agreed, with one now very familiar, nonnegotiable stipulation: "I want to be free from interference and especially free from well-meant suggestions. We'll save time and will do a better job."5 Although asking management to leave the team alone to "do a better job" was not a common request in 1961, Egbert got management to agree.

The design team and its Scrum roles

Within ten days, Loewy gathered a diverse team of four automotive stylists of varying ages and backgrounds for this challenge. This team immediately co-located (voluntarily), isolating themselves in a rented house in Palm Springs, assured that they would not be "interrupted" based on Lowey's stipulation to Egbert for accepting the assignment.

Scrum defines three roles: product owner, ScrumMaster. and development team. To put this story into a Scrum context, I stretched the usual Scrum roles a bit: Loewy was, in effect, the product owner for the design; John Ebstein (a project manager at Loewy's company) served as the design team's ScrumMaster. Bob Andrews was the clay model artist and Tom Kellogg was an automotive stylist and sketch artist — the development team. Because Loewy had other important projects, he lived with the team only for the beginning stages but remained available to answer any questions and returned to the team as often as required, performing the product owner role admirably. Ebstein performed the ScrumMaster role effectively, ensuring that no time was ever lost waiting for a Loewy decision.

Avanti design team in Palm Springs, March 1961

The 1/8 scale model design artifact

In 1961, a full-scale clay model of a car was required before any manufacturing could begin. Before creating this, Loewy's team planned to quickly prototype a 1/8 scale model, then take that small model to the manufacturing plant and finalize the details for the full-sized version by working with Studebaker's in-house styling department (planning for collaboration).

As work on the model progressed, Loewy's team also worked with Egbert and other Studebaker teams at the same time — an example of "overlapping development phases," performing design work while still defining requirements. First they identified the competition, targeting three American cars to outsell: the Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, and Chevrolet Corvette. Because the Avanti needed to surpass all three competitors in every category (comfort, features, safety, performance, etc.) while staying in the same price range, many decisions had to be made immediately. Cross-functional collaboration produced a design that reused major components already available for existing Studebakers (including modified versions of existing frames and engines) and superchargers from another Studebaker division. On March 27, less than two weeks after moving into the house and only eight days after beginning the project, the team finished the 1/8 scale clay model, confident that the end product would outsell the competition in that price range.

This was a truly unique clay model, with two different sides, showing a two-seat sports car on one side and a four-seat GT coupe on the other. On April 2, 1961, Egbert flew to Palm Springs to see the final clay model and Kellogg's final drawings. He was visibly thrilled, making only a few small changes. Loewy took the model to South Bend.

The full-sized model design artifact

Within two days of receiving the 1/8 scale model, Studebaker's styling director, Randall Faurot, led his in-house team (with input from Loewy's design team) to produce the full-size clay model. Employees (including executives) from other areas were also invited to collaborate. First, the two-seat coupe became a four-seater. When the tall Egbert bumped his head entering the car, the windshield pillar was redesigned to be more upright. Comments from production designers resulted in modifying the taillights, making them easier to produce without losing aesthetics and enabling the four-piece ("quad") headlights to be replaced by single headlights, again reducing cost without sacrificing design. This particular "inspect and adapt" strategy represents what Kenny Rubin calls "cross-cluster collaboration,"6 in which several teams self-organize and cluster together in a feature area, solving problems at the team level without needing any outside coordination.

On April 27, 1961, in just under five weeks, the completed full-size clay model was presented to Studebaker's board of directors and immediately approved. The public saw the first two Avantis at the New York Auto Show on April 26, 1962, which was the target Egbert had set for Loewy during their first meeting on March 2, 1961. Full production began immediately.

Studebaker Avanti Automobile Photo Poster: Raymond Loewy and Sherwood Egbert

Lean marketing

Because there were so few Avantis available before full production began, Studebaker commenced Operation Airlift on May 1, 1962. This involved ferrying two Avantis in a Fairchild C-82 transport plane to 23 major American airports, where they were showcased in specially outfitted tents so dealers could experience all of the Avanti's features. The operation lasted until May 23 (one day per city). The flood of orders received over those 23 days was unprecedented, with sales in full swing while "overlapping" production, which had just begun.

Production issues (and the end of Studebaker)

What follows is a compressed version of events. . . .

Although Avantis used existing parts and technology from Studebaker, the Avanti body was designed to be made from 130-plus pieces of highly specialized fiberglass, only available from the Molded Fiber Glass Companies in Ashtabula, Ohio. These 130-plus body parts had to be assembled by the fiberglass manufacturer using a single "body alignment master jig," requiring Avanti bodies to be built sequentially, literally one at a time (until additional jigs were available). Although not an issue while producing smaller preproduction quantities, this became a serious bottleneck when full production began. Many idle workers waited for months for bodies to arrive, resulting in the closure of one Studebaker plant before August 1962, when additional body master jigs became available. The plant closure caused the cancellation of virtually all remaining Avanti orders. It also caused sales of other Studebaker models to plummet. Studebaker quit the car business in December 1963 to completely focus on its other remaining 15 divisions, but it was too late: Studebaker officially became defunct in 1967, after 115 years. The 5,000 trees, 70 feet tall, that were planted across a half-mile on Studebaker's South Bend proving ground in 1937 still stand. They spell out "Studebaker," still clearly visible by air and space.7

Retrospective on end-product quality

When Avantis did finally become generally available in August 1962, concerns about the viability of Studebaker to survive made them impossible to sell, even if they could fly. Nonetheless, nearly every aspect of the Avanti received stellar reviews from more than a dozen publications, including Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Hot Rod magazines.

To prove reliability, in August 1962, a stock Avanti completed an 11,000-mile road trip ending at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Andy Granatelli drove this same Avanti (immediately after it arrived) at speeds averaging 145.99 mph. Granatelli broke 34 land speed records in 1962 in an Avanti. In October 1963, he set a land speed record of 170.78 in an Avanti. For safety, Avantis had a padded rollbar and were the first American production car to be fitted with front disc brakes. For performance, a Paxton supercharger (also made by Studebaker) was optional; it raised the standard engine's horsepower from 225 to 300.

Afterlife of the Avanti

Studebaker stopped Avanti production in December 1963. In August 1964, three Avanti enthusiasts purchased all of the rights, inventory, tooling, and buildings to produce the Avanti, keeping it alive until 1985 (three other companies made the Avanti until 2007). Even today, rumors persist about the Avanti emerging yet again. . . .

Final thoughts

The Avanti story clearly illustrates how production issues should have been better anticipated. A retrospective would recommend identifying alternate suppliers, embedding team members with supplier teams and vice versa, requiring nonrefundable deposits for orders, and so on.

Despite the end result, however, the Avanti story proves the effectiveness of the Agile practices followed by its design team.



1 Introducing Avanti 1963. March 27, 2012.

2 Scrum Alliance.

3 Takeuchi H, Ikujiro N. The new new product development game. Harvard Business Review. Jan-Feb 1986; 137-146.

4 The Official Website of Raymond Loewey.

5 Foster P. Designing the fabulous Avanti. Hemmings Classic Car. January 1, 2006; issue 16.

6 Rubin K. Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process. 2012; Addison-Wesley Professional, 240-241.

7 Story A. Studebaker trees: Dead company, living advertisement. Autoweek. Apri. 28, 2011.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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