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Cross-Functional Teams in Hardware

What skills are needed when creating physical products?

20 March 2017

Peter Borsella, Agile Industry
Winnow Management

Hubert Smits - Agile Industry
Big Orange Square LLC

After companies such as Xerox, Honda, and Canon showed great product delivery success with their collaborative team-based approaches in the 1980s, the software industry took hold of those ideas and also applied them with great success. As we continue the effort to deliver completed pieces of product functionality in relatively short cycles, it has become apparent that one of our key success factors is a delivery team that has all the necessary skills. For those of us in the software industry, this means accounting for skills in design, architecture, coding, testing, database administration, documentation, and whatever else might be needed to deliver value to our customers. As evidenced by the aforementioned companies, this logic is not restricted only to software.

Initial resistance to cross-functional teams

Fifteen years ago, when introducing the concept of cross-functional teams to software delivery organizations, we heard resistance, such as:
  • "Our testers can’t be part of the team. That would be a conflict of interest."
  • "Database administrators don’t write code, so why should they be on the team?"
  • "Our architects set direction for the developers, so they’re not really part of the team."
Yet, over time, this resistance was overcome as organizations began to see the need for shorter delivery cycles that can often be accomplished only by bringing these skills together.

Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing similar resistance from those in physical product delivery organizations:
  • "Our testers can’t be part of the team. That’s a whole separate division."
  • "Our manufacturing is outsourced."
  • "Our designers set direction for the suppliers, so suppliers aren’t really part of the team."
  • This resistance is beginning to change as organizations see their competition deliver new products to market faster while responding relatively quickly to shifts in the marketplace.

Creating cross-functional teams

What skills does our cross-functional team need when delivering physical products? There are two major hurdles we need to overcome when creating this type of cross-functional team. First, what skills are needed to build the product? Second, what skills are needed to mass-produce a million copies of that product?

Skills for delivering valuable products

The first hurdle has existed for decades. To understand the skills necessary to deliver valuable products, we need to consider what it means for us to build a "potentially shippable" product.

For initial product delivery, the possible delivery skills involved could include:
  • Design
  • Ergonomics
  • Materials
  • Mechanics
  • Electrical
  • Fluids
These skills collectively would allow the team to consider all of the work necessary to deliver a completed piece of product functionality.

While this may sound obvious to the experienced Agilist, it is quite the challenge to bring these sometimes highly segregated skills out of their silos and into the collective team environment. If we can accomplish this goal of bringing varied skills together, oftentimes from different departments or even divisions or companies, we can quickly see a shift toward team-based thinking around what is needed to deliver a fully integrated product.

Skills for mass-producing the product

But our plans do not stop with the successful delivery of one unit of product. What skills are needed to overcome the second hurdle of being prepared in relatively short order to mass-produce this product for general consumption? Traditional manufacturing processes expect that after we finalize our first unit, which may have gone through several lengthy phases of prototyping where nothing of potentially shippable quality has been delivered to our customer, the next phase of product delivery, manufacturing, can begin.

There is a problem with this approach, though. Just like late testing in software could reveal problems that cause extensive rework and delay, late discoveries in manufacturing can cause the same extensive rework and delay. We can figure out how to overcome the first hurdle and deliver that single unit faster and cheaper, but now we have the same long, drawn out process to mass-produce that product.

Additional skills will therefore be needed, such as:
  • Supply chain management
  • Manufacturing
  • Tooling
By bringing these skills into the team from the beginning and not waiting for the manufacturing phase, we create an opportunity for knowledge sharing, cross-disciplinary validations, and repeated inspect-and-adapt course corrections.

We have experimented with bringing these additional manufacturing skills into early planning and execution with the product development team and have witnessed the collaborative, energetic team-based approach to solving complex problems that span across the entire product delivery life cycle. Decisions around materials, suppliers, and tooling can be brought forward in consideration of the specific product being developed, reducing the risk associated with late decision making.

The physical product industry is returning to collaborative, cross-functional, team-based approaches. Companies such as Cisco, ARCA, and John Deere are building on this model that has repeatedly shown greater effectiveness and efficiency than previously thought possible. As competition increases, along with ever-decreasing product life cycles, we encourage product organizations to follow our mantra of "Twice the product in half the time" and take advantage of these opportunities for continuous improvement by creating fully functioning cross-functional teams.

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.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (2 ratings)


Jason Schreuder, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 4/20/2017 9:11:17 AM
Great article, gentlemen! For agile product development for manufacturable products to work, we have to continue the conversation of "shifting everybody left" and pulling in functions as early in the process as possible.

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