Software developers in the Silicon Valley often use the term “agile” when referring to lean startups or lean development Many software startups tack this buzzword onto their business strategies and “about us” pages, as much a marketing decision as an actual organizational philosophy. It might be easy to dismiss the notion as just one of a dozen such development methods. However, if one takes a look at the originally codification of the tenets of agile development for software companies, laid down by 17 software engineers in 2001, it’s clear that the philosophy has plenty of aspects that could be applied to a much broader variety of businesses. In fact, mechanical engineering firms have based their operations on similar premises for decades. Still, the “agile manifesto”, as it was termed, provides a useful, concise breakdown of the philosophy.
The four tenets of the agile development method
The original drafters of the manifesto broke business values down into four separate tenets, each emphasizing different but important aspects of the philosophy. This is a portion of the product development process that companies use to develop their new products. They are as follows
Individuals and interactions over process and tools
In an agile company, employees are treated as independent minds and not just tools in the company’s toolbox. The agile company relies on the individuality of their employees, and cooperation between those individuals, to help their organization evolve and grow. Regular collaboration and communication between people from the administration, business, engineering, and production levels of the company can bring to light issues and solutions that no individual could generate with an infinitely long brainstorming session.
Working software over comprehensive documentation
This is a notion that many engineering companies already recognize. For many projects, no amount of simulation results or PowerPoint slides can match the effectiveness of a physical, in-hand prototype for finding design problems, sparking new ideas, or convincing a customer to sign off on a project. While in-process mechanical engineering work may not be as easy to compartmentalize as the components of a piece of software, building and iterating from the start can sometimes achieve a much better product than getting everything on paper first and expecting a perfect result on the first production run
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
No amount of initial negotiation and planning will ever fully predict the path a project will take once it is underway or the changes that will become necessary during its development. Thus, it is more important that a company stays adaptable and works closely with its customers. Continuous communication with the customers will reveal problems sooner, help meet the client’s specifications more accurately, and more rapidly adapt to any changing circumstances. Overall, this leads not only to a more satisfied customer, but also to a more efficient and flexible organization.
Responding to change over following a plan
Similar to the previous tenet, this is a rephrasing of von Moltke’s old adage that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. An agile company values rapid response to change and continuous improvement of their product and organization. A company that can quickly adapt to new specifications in a project will require employees that can think on their feet, a wider range of knowledge and expertise, and a modular and reconfigurable environment. These qualities are obviously valuable for any project, however, so it’s easy to see how beneficial change can be to a company.
Twelve Principles of the Agile Method
The agile manifesto further breaks down these four tenets into twelve principles, which address the agile method in more detail and better define the original tenets. In the following blogs in this series of about 13, I’ll take a look at each of these principles in turn and see how it might apply to–or is already in practice at–a mechanical engineering firm.
Mechanical Engineers Have Used Agile Development for Decades
The concept car is a great example of the use of these tenets in a mechanical engineering context. No auto manufacturer would spend tens of millions of dollars, or more, designing a car line, tooling up an entire assembly line, and manufacturing thousands of units, without first gauging the demand. Instead, they work through imaginative sketches and hand-made prototypes, all the while gauging feedback from the engineer team that would design it and the people who would drive it, at corporate meetings and at car shows. The concept car most likely never goes to retail, but it lets the company predict the path they should follow, and save time and money designing next year’s production models. The concept car is an example of what Eric Ries calls the Minimum Viable Product in his book, “The Lean Startup” (Ries 93-96) : it is intended to be out-of-the-ordinary, so the company can better gauge the reaction of the consumers and industry experts that either love it or hate it.
 Beck et al. ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’. N.p., 2001. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. http://agilemanifesto.org/.  Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. United States: Crown Publishing Group, Division of Random House Inc, 2011. Print.