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Choosing between Lean Development, Agile Development and Systems Engineering

Author: Andreas Rülke, London
Each method has its sphere of application. Depending on development approach and objectives, one can choose either Lean Development or Agile Development or Systems Engineering.
Each method has its sphere of application. Depending on development approach and objectives, one can choose either Lean Development or Agile Development or Systems Engineering.

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Approaches to improving product development processes are manifold, e.g. Lean Development, Agile Development or Systems Engineering. Much discussed, all three have proven to be useful and effective. However, the key to success is to understand when and where each of the approaches can / should be used.

Originating from lean manufacturing methods and focusing on avoiding waste, lean practices were successfully transferred and applied to product development. In parallel, many companies started to work with Agile Development methods, running Scrum teams to gain speed and continuous customer feedback. Finally, for some decades now, Systems Engineering has been a capability and competence that is relevant for the ever-growing complexity in product and service systems that are built up through integration of hardware and software elements.

From certainty to the unknown

When we plot the development approach over the objective, the areas for Lean Development, Agile Development and Systems Engineering can easily be mapped to this model*.

Lean Development methods have evolved from lean manufacturing, where specific products are produced within existing manufacturing methods with predetermined work steps. This is a perfect environment to focus on avoiding waste and streamlining the flow with lean principles. In case the development objective and the development approach are well known and defined, companies usually repeat work that has been done in the past by creating product improvements and optimizations. This type of development work can benefit greatly from Lean Development activities, since all the required steps are well understood. For example, this approach would be well suited to develop an incremental, well-understood performance improvement for an existing machine.

However, if the development objective is clear on a high level, e.g. to build a new machine with certain performance criteria, or when new ways of working are being introduced – for example, a new validation approach, then a company is engaged in somewhat uncertain innovation. This area is a good match for Agile Development methods trying to achieve “as much as possible” within a given time frame. This might be to achieve as much performance improvement as possible or to develop a design prototype based on new material.

Systems Engineering: best approach for radical innovations

If the desired product or systems solution is complex and leads to a radical innovation, then there is a need for a systems engineering approach. One example would be to develop a new rocket ship that can fly to Mars and back. It is easy to imagine the need of a systematic engineering way of working to design a potential solution and to deal with all the potential uncertainties such as new materials, a new propulsion system and much more. A more practical example might be to develop a new car platform, e.g. the new design of an electric car. Systems Engineering is the best approach for radical innovations.

Lean Development, Agile Development, and Systems Engineering are good and proven work methods, but they need to be applied in the right context. Of course, these three ways of innovation can be applied next to each other and can complement each other when they are stacked along the V Model** of Systems Engineering. But that is another discussion topic.


*Based on “Lean vs Agile in the context of complexity management in organizations” by Goran D. Putnik, Zlata Putnik

**The V-model divides development into System Design, translations of requirements into specifications, Detailed Development and System Test, Verification, Integration and Validation of Designs.

The author: Andreas Rülke is a management consultant focusing on product development and innovation management. For over 23 years, he has been supporting high-tech companies. He has a proven track record in numerous international projects in Germany, Sweden, UK, US and Switzerland. His expertise includes R&D and product strategy, product portfolio optimization and roadmaps, and technology and product development. Andreas Rülke (Dipl.-Ing, MBA) teaches R&D and innovation management at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, among others.