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Published: August 8, 2014
 / Autumn 2014 / Issue 76

 
 

Warfare, Software, and Industrial Design

The benefits of an organic, more iterative approach to product development. See also “Lessons in Product Design from Modern Warfare—In Pictures.”

Industrial companies are often perceived as lumbering giants that have difficulty responding to competitive pressures and capitalizing on market trends. Design cycles can last years—not just for developing new products but also for upgrades to the existing portfolio.

Why are many industrial manufacturers so sluggish? In my experience, these companies have traditionally relied on a top-down, linear process that moves projects through design gates, also called stage gates. For senior management, it’s a comfortable way of doing things, making it easy to track progress and maintain control. However, this approach has significant downsides. It is often slow and bureaucratic, and its mechanical nature can stifle creativity. And at its best, innovation is an organic process; too much planning and control may lead to sub-optimal solutions.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. When industrial companies need to make changes in product cost or design more rapidly than traditional methods will allow, they can take a page from the fast-moving world of software design and adopt a sprint-and-scrum approach. This iterative process relies on short cycles involving rapid design evolution and revision. The sprint is a period of concentrated effort, such as engineering or coding a module, by individuals or small teams. At the end of each sprint, stakeholders from the key functions come together for the scrum, where they review progress and clarify goals for the next sprint. The intense nature helps to bring the organization together toward a common goal, and avoids the tedium that can set in with a long stage-gate process.

Leaders of industrial companies might worry that this approach won’t suit their complex needs. But a review of recent history shows that sprint and scrum predates the software industry, and has been used to develop many of the most complicated designs in human history.

Sprint and scrum has been used to develop many of the most complicated designs in human history.

A More Agile Past

The industrial and defense companies of yesteryear pulled off incredible feats of design without many of today’s accelerative technologies. Take the Supermarine Spitfire, which was the main Royal Air Force fighter aircraft during World War II. At the outset of the war, the British realized that to be successful in the Atlantic theater, the aircraft would need significant improvements. Between 1936 and 1945, it changed engines, its loaded weight doubled, and its maximum speed increased by 90 miles per hour. The rapid evolution of the plane was possible only because of its iterative design and testing approach.

Jump ahead a few years, to the start of the Cold War. Andrei Sakharov began designing the first Soviet thermonuclear device in 1949. After the device failed early performance tests, Sakharov and his team made two quick design iterations, resulting in “Sakharov’s Third Idea,” which led to a successful detonation in November 1955. The entire design cycle with three iterations was completed in only six years.

In the United States, meanwhile, the Saturn V rocket program started in 1961 with the seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. To meet the timeline, the rocket’s three stages and instrument unit were developed in parallel by four companies, each of which further compressed schedules by using parallel testing and development. Saturn V rockets were ready for use as part of the Apollo lunar missions just eight years later.

People may argue that the speed of such efforts was possible only because of enormous budgets and the sense of urgency imparted by war or bold presidential decree. And it’s a valid point: Over the last 1,000 years, large-scale warfare has proven itself time and again to be the single biggest catalyst for economic and technological innovation. But a closer look reveals that the decision to iterate these projects quickly and decisively—essentially, to sprint and scrum—was what largely enabled their success.

 
 
 
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