At the Factory: Female Mechanical Engineer Designs 3D Engine on Her Personal Computer, Male Automation Engineer Uses Laptop for Programming Robotic Arm.

The Implications for Design Accountability in Agile for Hardware

Are you thinking about switching over to using agile for hardware development? There’s one cultural change you might want to consider before you make the switch.

What’s this cultural change you need to take into account if you’re going to be switching over to agile? It gets down to engineering accountability. In the past, for hardware development, one engineer is usually responsible for developing one board system or set of mechanical parts or assembly from beginning to end. Product development includes calculations and plans about how a design will satisfy requirements. If you own all development from beginning to end, you don’t need to document anything. You just need to make sure you address all the requirements.

In an Agile methodology, frequent daily Scrum meetings with the whole engineering team are common. Everybody reviews the blocks that are keeping them from making progress, any issues, how much progress they are making, and everybody gets up to speed.

Now, part of the Agile methodology is that you can switch assignments. You can take what one person is doing and hand it over to another person. There’s flexibility. If you have experts for areas such as fatigue, systems integration, or network bandwidth, you can move them around. This flexibility enables you to work on different systems and solve the biggest problems along the way.

What that means, is that you don’t necessarily have one person developing and accountable for something from beginning to end. The organization needs to know that. With multiple development owners, hardware engineers need to start documenting their intent for other people who might be working on the same design. They need to know the original plan so that they can continue down that path and have the right context to do the work.

That is a culture shift. A lot of engineers are so busy; they don’t have time for documentation. The lack of documentation works because they own the development from beginning to end in a waterfall or a spiral development model. In Agile, that doesn’t work. You need to be able to communicate to others what you’re originally intending.

If you’re looking at switching over to an Agile methodology and adopting this daily Scrum approach, you need to be aware of this transition explicitly. It is a cultural change because engineers have been doing it the other way for decades, so be aware of that as you change to agile.

That’s it. Take care, and talk soon.

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