Beyond Phase Gates – Agile R&D

3 May 2017 Sandeep Mehta

Phased development with gate reviews has delivered many benefits to product development organizations. This process ensures business perspective is incorporated into product development. Gate reviews are generally led by senior managers. Their engagement drives organizational consensus and resource commitment. Gate reviews also guide the organization away from risky endeavors by focusing on predictability and return on investment.

However, stage gate process also introduces some challenges. This process is only applicable to large new product development efforts because of the additional overhead and required senior management time commitment. The gate review process is hard to implement on small sustaining engineering projects where the goal is fixing some issues or improving manufacturability. It is hard to apply this process to small technology development, advanced R&D or disruptive innovation projects. In many organization this means that small projects do not follow any consistent process. Hence managers loose visibility and control over the entire portfolio.

The stage gate process can be seen as waterfall model. This model assumes customer needs and functional requirements are completely known before development is started. For products with long development cycles or in rapidly changing markets, stage gates introduce many challenges:

  • Difficulty adapting to changing market needs
  • Limited business/marketing visibility into development
  • Late or uncoordinated requirements changes
  • Surprise issues and unexpected risks
  • Disconnected test plans and expensive testing

More importantly, this model reduces experimentation and prevents disruptive innovations from getting to market. As Clayton Christensen pointed out:

“The Stage-Gate system assumes that the proposed strategy is the right strategy; the problem is that except in the case of incremental innovations, the right strategy cannot be completely known in advance. The Stage-Gate system is not suited to the task of assessing innovations whose purpose is to build new growth businesses, but most companies continue to follow it simply because they see no alternative.”

So what is the solution? Implement Agile Development..,

The iterative Agile Development Model has brought immense benefits to software development. It is possible to bring these benefits of iterative development to complex physical systems in industries such as aerospace, automotive or medical devices.

  • Early and continuous delivery of features to stakeholders
  • Coordinated and measured requirement changes
  • Early management of risks and constraints
  • Efficient reviews building consensus and driving delivery
  • Cross-enterprise visibility into innovation maturation

However, we need to address two major challenges specific to physical system development:

  • Complex interdependencies: It is easy to define interfaces between software components and constrain them to pass only a limited number of parameters. Physical systems, on the other hand, can have infinite interactions. Change in one component may have cascading impact across the entire bill of materials. Agile development for physical systems needs to be able to manage this complexity
  • Disparate development cycles: Software component development cycles are more or less predictable and controllable. In fact, Agile Software Development has implemented special approaches to get better control over cycles. On the other hand, different components in a physical product have different development cycles. They are normally being undertaken at different suppliers. Any agile development method for physical systems needs to address these development cycles

Agile R&D for physical system needs to manage iterations. Development teams need to iterate more frequently during initial stages while development costs are low and the impact of changes is small. These rapid iterations can increase experimentation and improve innovation delivery. However, as the product matures, we need to be more circumspect about changes and manage their impact. In fact, these iterations can be seen as spiral development model.

These iterations need to be aligned across the product hierarchy to elucidate interdependencies and managed for development cycles. Hence, physical system development iterations need to be a lot more disciplined, carefully planned and communicated. We at InspiRD call this process maturation. The TRL maturation scale is a great example of a disciplined iteration model – a maturation model.

The maturation model defines multiple integration points at increasing scale of maturation. Each integration point provides a product delivery to internal and external customers- ensuring engagement. Multiple integrations mean better understanding of interactions and fewer surprise risks. The model allows for different development cycles by combining components with different maturity as they become available.

This iterative model is applicable to projects of all types and provides an integrated approach to manage the entire portfolio. Effective deployment of these agile methods requires software tools. Effective tools can reduce overhead and improve management visibility. More importantly, these tools can drive design reuse and improve the R&D ROI over the long-term. Click for a case study on Agile R&D implementation for physical systems.

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