I Got Five Years For Agile In Manufacturing

I got 5 years for Agile in Manufacturing

I was reading a LinkedIn post by C Keith Horner in which he ponders the application of the Agile framework in Agile Manufacturing.

This post is inspired by pretty much the same inspiration and question that has haunted me for at least the last 5 years as I serve my time in which I have another 3 to 5 years left to serve assuming I can get off for good behaviour! …

A Big thanks!

… to Keith and his post for the inspiration to finally right this blog article.

Hi Keith, I too got hooked on this very topic a number of years ago and here’s what happened next …


In 2011, I began to wonder if Agile approaches practised within the Software and IT industries had applications in other industries such as manufacturing, education and social enterprises such as not-for-profits.  I had come up with an inventive idea to help long term unemployed re-skill and re-train through collaborative innovative problem solving and peer to peer learning by doing.  This idea would grow to blend in the tools, techniques, patterns and practices drawn from bootstrapping, the lean start-up and makers movement, Coder DoJo and Project Management utilising an Agile approach.  When I looked closer at the emerging programme I had designed called The Jobs Factory , I found I was looking at the tip of an iceberg.  I would need a deeper dive to sink into the depths of my lack of understanding if I was to learn just how deep below the surface of my existing knowledge the topic go .


2012 I read ‘The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses‘ by Eric Ries which help me to envisage a more robust and practical connection between Agile, XP and Scrum within the software and IT industries with that of its Lean Thinking from Lean Manufacturing origins.


2013 I was passionate to understand more and so, I went in pursuit of my post graduate in Innovation Management. I had discovered a further possible connection from Agile, Lean, Design Thinking and Human Centre Design which I viewed as a disruptive and innovative approach to the voice of the customer and new product design.  The champions helping me to draw a connection were Tom Kelley author of ‘The Ten Faces Of Innovation’ and David Kelley, both of IDEO fame.  During the course I was shocked at the insights I had gained as a team leader during an innovation audit assessment my team had conducted in one of the post 2007 crashed Irish pillar banks.  The slow moving culture of large manufacturing, education and not-for-profit organisations really had captured my imagination.


So much so, I went in search of the anti-culture.  The anti-culture would pitch the slow moving big fish enterprises against the fast moving small fish of small business.  As I narrowed my final year projects focus, I arrived at a simple question “How can innovation work for micro-firms?”.  My research would look at the most Agile category of SMEs and how innovation worked (or did not work) within established indigenous small businesses keeping in mind that micro enterprises make up over 90% of all enterprises and SMEs provide over 65% of all employment in Europe.


2014 As I continued my research via a second Quality Management (Lean Systems) post graduate I was inspired when reading the ‘Lean Entrepreneur’ by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits as it appeared to confirm the connection I had drawn between Agile and Lean.  For my next research project, I chose to target a local small manufacturing company who employed less than 250 employees but was experiencing rapid growth.  The company was relocating its entire existing award winning manufacturing  operations, plant and employees and was at the very beginning of its first steps into a Lean transformation.  I wanted to begin testing out some of my early theories on the topic of applying Agile approaches in manufacturing and the possible rewards to be realised.  I successfully completed my research project and posted a blog article and case study entitled ‘Lean Innovating A New Manufacturing Service’.  The project had given me an extended opportunity over six months to observe, listen and learn some highly rewarding and valuable experience and insights as well as allowing me to develop some new Lean coaching  tools and techniques.  Later I penned a small number of diverse articles which I posted a subset via my personal blog at: http://innovationworks.ie/innovation-works-can-innovation-work/blogs/  I know had two post graduate specialist diplomas and more importantly a hugely successful Lean Innovation project under my newly awarded Lean Manufacturing Black Belt from the University of Limerick.


2015 I had really found my calling at this point and I wanted to shoot for my masters and perhaps a PhD as a vehicle to continue my research into Lean Innovation.  I began to think about … As Agile, XP and Scrum are derived from Lean Thinking, where then do the teachings of Dr. Deming, the empirical approach to new product development, burn down charts and data driven development of software and IT industries play their role?


To be clear … I HATE MATHIMATICS!.  I had been avoiding Six Sigma because the mere suggestion of learning, understanding and then applying scientific notation as mathematical formulas to perform statistical analysis pretty near turned my stomach.   Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the emergence of “The Survey Said …” had given me a naive uninformed misguided negative understanding of statistics as something churned out by marketing departments in big organisations in an attempt to brain wash joe and jane public into buying even more crap.


But as I researched deeper, I kept making connections to the empirical data driven approach of statistics and its application as a primary approach utilised within Six Sigma.   I began reading conflicting posts about Six Sigma versus Lean and how Lean was more radical than Six Sigma in relation to continuous improvement and innovation.  It appeared to me that Six Sigma sought to stabilise existing proven processes with low variability where as, Lean went in search of a continuous improvement, waste reduction and even greater added value for customer satisfaction which implied that processes needed to be flexible and variable.


I wondered if I had stumbled upon some parallel between Agile, Lean and Six Sigma born of the insights I had gained when researching the innovation efforts of big and small enterprises.  I asked myself, is there a secret battle raging for supremacy between Agile, Lean and Six Sigma approaches or are they brothers in arms?  Having climbed out of the Agile trenches of software development to capture a black belt in Lean Manufacturing, I was now going to have to cross the battle field to dig deeper into a new understanding of Six Sigma and what role (if any) Lean Six Sigma would play in my research?


Having read a basket of books around the topic, one of the books that stood out more than others for me was … Six Sigma for Small Business by Greg Brue because it would connect the dots of the Agility and needs of small business, with the lean manufacturing tools to build upon the solid empirical data driven foundation of statistical analysis framed within the structured approach of DMAIC and Six Sigma.   Captured by the pages … I completely read the entire book in a single day as I drive to work and home again.   That was it, despite my total dislike for the subject of statistics and my entirely justified fear of mathematics and scientific notation I was going to have to learn more and take an even deeper dive into the murky waters of Six Sigma and sink or swim I was going to figure out why Lean and Six Sigma would keep washing up in my research as Lean Six Sigma.


2016, its all getting a bit embarrassing about now as I found myself enrolling again but now in to my third distance learning post graduate specialist diploma which would be ‘Quality Management (Six Sigma)’.  Perhaps you can get a more fuller picture if you bring to mind the facts that I am a dyslexic early school leaver and mature student who’s only educational qualifications of any real personal value are those I gained from the school of hard knocks.  A glutton for punishment … I am now deep into my final year project applying agile approaches, using lean tools, driven forward by a data driven statistical analysis of a inventory management Six Sigma problem solving project in a major manufacturing operation as part of my ongoing research.


So What’s next? … I hope to complete my journey with first a masters during 2017/18 and ending with the publication of a series of PhD papers based upon further research and learning as part of a PhD into “How Can Lean Innovation Create Shared Value In Commercial and Social SMEs?”


Its now 2017 and since 2011, the application of Agile in manufacturing, education, small business and not-for-profits has held me prisoner.  At this point I have served 5 years of life long learning already with another 3 to 5 years to go … with time off for good behaviour!  My only regret is I have yet to figure out a more Agile approach to my journey to learn more about Agile applied in other industries, so for those asking what at first may appear to be simple questions like “How can Agile work for manufacturing?” … be warned … an ancient warning comes to mind …


“be careful what you wish for …”




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