Systems engineering goes agile – experiences from a pilot project at Tetra Pak

Speaker: Lena Johansson
Venue: Copenhagen (June 2nd 2015)

Agile development methodologies have been used within software engineering (SW) for decades. A large number of papers and books have been written on the topic. However, few of them touch upon the implementation of agile methods in mechanical product development.

Tetra Pak is the world’s leading food processing and packaging solutions company, supplying a complete range of filling machines and distribution equipments for carton packages. Tetra Pak uses a traditional stage-gate V model development process. However, one project has started to pilot a combination of the V model and agile methods. The project began in September 2014 and has just entered the verification phase.

So is it valuable – or even possible – to apply agile methods in a mechanical product development context such as ours? The answer is –Yes. Our experiences so far include two main benefits: Work efficiency and Employee motivation. Project members experience that work tasks are performed and deliverables are produced with higher focus and efficiency than in ordinary projects, due to that work is broken down in 4-week cycles (sprints). Employee motivation and team spirit was notable from the beginning of the project, and continues to grow as the team becomes even more empowered and united.

But what does this new way of working mean for the Systems Engineer? For instance, requirements management is impacted as the definition phase is more incremental. We start with the top priority requirements and analyse, design and verify them before taking on the next set of requirements on the product backlog. Therefore, requirements are not all in the same state at the same time, as suggested by the V model where all requirements are analysed before moving on to design.

Pure SW projects can verify the full system continuously and deliver a working product release to customer at the end of each sprint. However, this is not possible in mechanical product development due to strong interdependencies and long lead-times. The Systems Engineer in our pilot project uses an agile mindset to ensure the product always is as verified as possible. We develop internal releases after each sprint and use virtual engineering, simulation and physical testing to verify acceptance criteria (Definition of Done) to secure that we are on the right track to deliver a product that fulfils customer needs and expectations. Before final release to customer, full system verification is performed as for the traditional V model.

Another difference is that our traditional milestone and tollgate presentations are replaced by sprint reviews where governance makes technical and commercial decisions. The systems engineer is usually the presenter at system milestone reviews, whereas in the new model the team members present their own work products, e.g. prototypes, to governance.

To summarise, the application of agile in a mechanical product development domain differs from what we are used to from text books and papers. Nevertheless, we see major benefits of applying agile methods when it comes to employee satisfaction and work efficiency and believe that agile methodologies are here to stay.

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