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ISSN: 0895-6308 (Print) 1930-0166 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/urtm20
Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
Robert G. Cooper & Anita Friis Sommer
To cite this article: Robert G. Cooper & Anita Friis Sommer (2018) Agile–Stage-
Gate for Manufacturers, Research-Technology Management, 61:2, 17-26, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/08956308.2018.1421380
Published online: 07 Mar 2018.
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Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
Changing the Way New Products Are Developed
Integrating Agile project management methods into a Stage-Gate system offers both opportunities and challenges.
Robert G. Cooper and Anita Friis Sommer
OVERVIEW: Agile development methods borrowed from the software industry are now being used by a handful of
manufacturing firms for the development of physical products. Agile methods, which include time-boxed sprints,
daily stand-up meetings, and early demos and retrospectives, are typically embedded within some or all of the stages of
an existing Stage-Gate system. This article presents six case studies from major firms experimenting with Agile–Stage-
Gate hybrids. These results show that early outcomes of these efforts are quite positive; some firms report significant
improvements in both time to market and development productivity, as well as faster responses to changing market
conditions and customer needs and higher project team morale. However, they also identified many challenges in
implementing Agile–Stage-Gate hybrids, including addressing management skepticism, finding the needed resources to
field dedicated teams, and dealing with fluid product definitions and development plans. Based on case firms’ experiences,
we provide recommendations for implementing a hybrid product development system.
KEYWORDS: New product development, Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid, Agile, Stage-Gate
The pace of change in many markets and technologies has
reached a critical point—product cycles have accelerated to
the point where traditional new-product development
methods no longer work. Today’s gating processes are too
linear and rigid, inhibiting proactive response to change
during the development process. As a result, a handful of
leading manufacturers in North America and in Europe,
among them Honeywell, LEGO Group, Tetra Pak, GE,
Chamberlain, and Danfoss, have begun to experiment with
integrating elements of Agile development processes into
their existing gating systems. The result is a hybrid
model—Agile–Stage-Gate—that promises to yield the best
of both systems. This new model has the advantage of
providing the company’s existing stage-and-gate system,
which provides focus, structure, and control, with the
benefits of an Agile approach and mindset, namely speed,
agility, and productivity.
The benefits of Agile development methods in the
software world—flexibility, productivity, speed—have been
widely studied and documented (see, for example, Begel
and Nagappan 2007). Software development firms were
the first to combine Agile with Stage-Gate, beginning in
the early 2000s (Boehm and Turner 2004; Karlstrom and
Runeson 2005). Those successes attracted the attention of
physical product manufacturers seeking ways to accelerate
their product development processes; Sommer and
colleagues (2015) describe the new model and some early,
mostly positive experiments with it.
These early adopters now have sufficient experience to
offer some insights, not only on the results that might be
achieved but also—and perhaps most importantly—on
the challenges that must be addressed in integrating Agile
into a Stage-Gate system. A case study looking at the
experience of six major firms provides perspective on
how the Agile-Stage-Gate model works, what challenges
and opportunities it presents, and how others might
proceed in adopting (or adapting) the model.
Robert G. Cooper is president of the Product Development Institute, ISBM
Distinguished Research Fellow at Penn State University’s Smeal College
of Business Administration, and a Crawford Fellow of the Product Development
and Management Association. A thought leader in the field of product
innovation management and developer of the Stage-Gate new product
development system, he has published 11 books and more than 120
articles; two of those articles have received Maurice Holland Awards from
IRI. He received his PhD in business administration and MBA from the
University of Western Ontario and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in
chemical engineering from McGill University. firstname.lastname@example.org
Anita Friis Sommer is a senior manager and transformation lead at LEGO
Group, currently responsible for an Agile transformation of two major
technology departments. She completed a post-doctorate on process
modeling at the University of Cambridge and holds a PhD in product
development management and a Master’s in engineering management
from Aalborg University, Denmark. She is a recipient of the 2016 Maurice
Holland Award for an article she coauthored on the integration of Agile
principles into product development. email@example.com
Copyright © 2018, Innovation Research Interchange.
Published by Taylor & Francis. All rights reserved.
Research-Technology Management . March—April 2018 j 17
Evolving from Stage-Gate to Agile–Stage-Gate
Stage-Gate describes a system in which the product
development process—from idea generation to market
launch—is broken into discrete stages, each with defined
tasks and prescribed deliverables (Cooper 1988, 2017).
Gates that precede each stage mark Go/Kill or investment
decision points. The method has been widely adopted by
manufacturing firms to drive new-product projects to market.
Traditional gating systems, however, are no longer suitable
for many of today’s businesses—from food to construction
equipment (Cooper 2014; Ettlie and Elsenbach 2007;
Karlstrom and Runeson 2005; Lenfle and Loch 2010; Leon,
Farris, and Letens 2013). In traditional Stage-Gate systems,
when a project is approved to begin heavy development
work, the proposed product is clearly defined and a plan
of action with associated costs is approved. But in many
projects, important elements of that product definition
and action plan change as development work proceeds:
customers’ needs evolve, market requirements change,
and plans must change with them. The traditional gating
model does not allow for this change—the product
definition and development plan are locked in—creating
change management issues downstream. Gating systems
are simply too linear and too rigid to adapt effectively to
the unstable and rapidly changing markets and customer
needs that drive today’s new products.
To address the need for a more fluid, adaptable system,
some leading-edge manufacturing companies are looking
to Agile, a development process that emerged from the
software industry, where it has delivered positive results
since the 1990s (Rigby, Sutherland, and Takeuchi 2016).
The Agile Manifesto, the impetus for Agile product
development practices, calls for a development process
that values collaboration, response to change, and a
working product (Beck et al. 2001). Agile development
addresses these values by supporting adaptive planning
and evolutionary delivery through a time-boxed, iterative
approach that emphasizes rapid delivery of incremental
components of a product and frequent communication
among team members and with stakeholders (see “Agile
Basics,” right). The result is a system that is adaptive and
flexible and thrives on change; its core element is a
continually evolving product definition that emerges
through short-term, dynamic planning.
These attributes are the basis of Agile’s appeal to product
manufacturers; another impetus is the growing role
software is playing in physical products. For instance,
for a manufacturer of construction vehicles, product
development has traditionally meant new engines, new
transmissions, and new articulation systems—largely
electrical and mechanical engineering work. But today’s
new vehicles incorporate a whole range of software—tools
to maximize productivity, minimize waiting times at job
sites, and monitor maintenance and repair needs.
Along with the promise it offers, Agile also brings challenges
for manufacturers. It is not strategic enough and
may be too short-term focused for many manufacturers.
Agile, specifically the Scrum version, is a set of software
development methodologies that breaks the development
process into a series of short, iterative, incremental sprints,
each typically one to four weeks long (Beck at al. 2001;
Schwaber 2004; Scrum Guides 2017). The main components
of the process are:
. Sprint planning meeting—At the beginning of each
sprint, the development team meets to agree on what
it can accomplish in the sprint and creates a task plan.
. Daily stand-up meetings—During the sprint, the team
meets every morning to ensure that work is on course
to accomplish the sprint goals, review what has been
accomplished in the last 24 hours and what should
be done in the next 24, and resolve problems; these
meetings are also sometimes called scrums.
. Demo—At the end of each sprint, product increments or
new features developed in the sprint are demonstrated
and validated with stakeholders, including both
management and customers.
. Retrospective meeting—At the end of each sprint, the
team meets to review how team members worked
together and how the team can improve.
The team then plans and begins the next sprint based on
customer and management feedback on what needs
improving and what needs to be developed next. Product
requirements and technical solutions, and even the project
plan, thus evolve over the development cycle.
There is no traditional project leader or project
manager in Agile. Rather, the process relies on a set of
. The scrum master, a servant-leader for the team,
ensures that the team adheres to Agile theory, practices,
. The product owner, a member of management,
represents the product’s stakeholders and the voice of
the customer and is accountable for ensuring that the
team delivers value to the business.
. The development team, a dedicated project team that
does the development work; the development team is
usually physically collocated.
The development team’s work is visible to all, tracked and
monitored via a set of visual scheduling and tracking tools
that are displayed in the team room:
. The Project Backlog displays a list of features to be
completed in the current sprint.
. The Kanban Board (also sometimes called the Scrum
Board) organizes sprint tasks in three categories—to
do, doing (underway), and done.
. The Burndown Chart is a two-dimensional graph that
shows progress versus the plan; the sprint time
period is on the x-axis and the sprint task times are on
18 j Research-Technology Management Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
The sprints that give Agile its adaptability and productivity
are excellent for mapping what the development team
should do each week, but that ultra-short-term focus can
make it difficult to keep the long-term goal in sight. As a
senior R&D executive in a major optical equipment firm,
participating in a workshop on Agile and Stage-Gate,
remarked about a troubled Agile-based project, “They’re
in their 39th sprint, and I’m not sure they really know
where they’re heading or where the goal line is.” Nor does
Agile deal with the issue of whether the company should
be doing the project in the first place; Agile projects are
rarely stopped. By contrast, Stage-Gate brings a strategic
orientation to product development. The gates allow space
for management to consider the bigger questions around a
project as it moves forward: Are we doing the project right,
and are we doing the right project?
A hybrid model that integrates elements of both Agile
and Stage-Gate can help companies capitalize on the
strengths of both. Such a model has been described in some
detail (Cooper 2014, 2016; Cooper and Sommer 2016a,
2016b; Sommer et al. 2015). Briefly, an Agile–Stage-Gate
hybrid embeds the Agile way of working within Stage-Gate
stages (Figure 1), replacing traditional project management
tools and approaches, such as Gantt charts, milestones, and
critical path planning, with Agile tools and processes. Thus,
each stage is composed of a series of time-boxed sprints,
each lasting about two to four weeks (Figure 1, right). As
in pure Agile, each sprint is planned in real time, on the
fly, yielding a process that is highly responsive and adaptive.
At the end of each sprint, the project team produces
a tangible result of some kind—a prototype or other
physical model that can be demonstrated to stakeholders,
including customers, for validation and to identify needed
design changes. Many firms also conduct tactical planning
every one to three months across all development teams
and with management. Here, teams meet to create a joint
A hybrid model that integrates
elements of both Agile and Stage-Gate
can help companies capitalize on the
strengths of both.
tactical plan, prioritize activities, and allocate limited
resources for the next period (Figure 1, left).
This rapid, iterative, and incremental release of concepts,
designs, and prototypes provides fast customer feedback,
which is integrated into the next sprint to move the product
closer to what customers want and need. Customers, in
turn, refine their definitions of their needs through their
participation in the process. The voice of the customer thus
becomes a dynamic driver throughout the project. The postsprint
retrospective allows the team to determine whether
the assigned tasks have been completed—whether the
sprint is actually “done”—and provides an opportunity to
consider how the team can work better in following sprints.
As in Agile for software projects, the project team is ideally
dedicated to the one project and collocated in one team
room and has daily stand-up meetings (also called scrum
meetings) to facilitate communication and productivity.
Gates and stages remain an important part of this hybrid
model. Gates provide vital go/kill decision points—culling
out weak projects, providing focus in the development
pipeline, and enabling senior management to review
projects at key transition points. Stages provide a high-level
overview of the project’s main phases and a guide to
required or recommended activities and expected
deliverables for each stage. The deliverables specified for
FIGURE 1. A typical Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid model, with Agile sprints built into stages
Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers March—April 2018 j 19
each gate, however, are leaner, less granular, and more
flexible than in the classic gating model, and they are more
tangible—product designs or prototypes rather than reports
or slide presentations.
A number of leading manufacturers have begun to
experiment with Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid models, some
as early as 2013. Often, those experiments began with
software developers using Agile to develop the software
component of a larger project; as groups responsible for
the physical components of these projects observed Agile
at work, they decided to try the Agile model themselves.
LEGO Education, for example, is a long-time user of traditional
Stage-Gate processes. Its hardware developers were
introduced to Agile in 2015, when the Digital Solutions
(software) group was invited onto the struggling Story Teller
project, a product aimed at teachers of young children. The
software team brought with it its Agile processes; the Story
Teller project immediately experienced a rapid acceleration,
and a highly successful product was launched within 12
months—after four years of struggle using the classic
Stage-Gate system. LEGO Education quickly absorbed that
lesson and by 2016, several other major projects were using
an Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid model. Impressed with results
in that business unit, LEGO is now rolling out the hybrid
process to most technology departments in the company.
The results from these early adopters have been quite
positive (Cooper 2016; Cooper and Sommer 2016a,
2016b), but most firms are still in a piloting phase; only a
few have had the new system in place for more than three
years. Still, these early results are intriguing. The most comprehensive
study, of five major European manufacturing
firms that implemented Agile–Stage-Gate, identified
major benefits in a range of areas (Sommer et al. 2015).
The hybrid model, the study found,
. increased design flexibility;
. improved productivity, communication, and coordination
among project team members;
. drove better focus on projects, resulting in better
prioritization of time and effort; and
. raised team morale.
That study also revealed some negatives, including
difficulties in acquiring team members and keeping
project teams connected to the rest of the organization,
mismatches between the requirements of Agile and the
company’s reward systems, and still too much bureaucracy.
These early findings were based on very short experiences
with hybrid models. Now, some firms have been working
with these processes for three years or more, gaining
additional insight into both opportunities and challenges.
Case Studies: Early Adopters
To find out what early adopters are learning about
Agile–Stage-Gate models and their strengths and
challenges, we examined the experience of six major
firms that were early adopters of Agile–Stage-Gate—
Chamberlain, Danfoss, GE, Honeywell, LEGO Group, and
Tetra Pak (see “The Study,” right).
All six firms are predominantly manufacturers, although
software is playing an increasingly important role in the
products they manufacture (particularly at Honeywell,
Chamberlain, and LEGO). They operate in a variety of
industries, including process controls, packaging
equipment, remote control equipment, and even toys.
None is in a traditional process industry, such as chemicals,
polymers, materials, or pharmaceuticals. Half the firms
were based in North America and half in Europe.
Before adopting an Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid, all six firms
had been using a fairly traditional Stage-Gate system, successfully
and for many years; they adopted hybrid models
for a range of reasons, from a need to resolve internal conflicts
to a call for faster, more efficient product development
(see “Case Firms,” p. 21). When they moved to the hybrid
model, these firms kept their classic stage-and-gate
processes and applied Agile within some or all of the stages.
The hybrid system is deployed on a minority of development
projects in these firms, generally the larger, higher
risk, and more ambiguous or uncertain projects. Most firms
estimated using the hybrid system on about 20 percent of
projects. While many common Agile–Stage-Gate practices,
challenges, and solutions emerged, there remain variations;
this is a new model and a new way of working, and a
dominant model has not yet emerged.
Interviewees found it very difficult to quantify the
improvements resulting from the adoption of the hybrid
model; only one of the six firms had installed objective
To gather more information about what firms are learning
about Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid models, we undertook
detailed case studies in six firms that had been working with
Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid product development models
for two to three years or longer. These analyses were
undertaken in early adopter firms, which were identified at
our workshops and from personal networking.
The interviews, which lasted about an hour, were based
on an interview guide developed by the authors; the
questions asked the interviewee to describe the firm’s
Agile–Stage-Gate process, explain why the firm opted to
try this development approach, and detail the results
achieved. It then delved into major issues and challenges
faced in implementation and the solutions the company
found. Typically, we interviewed two or three people in each
firm; the senior person in charge of the Agile–Stage-Gate
implementation was interviewed, as well as either Agile–
Stage-Gate task force members or project team members.
Interviews were conducted separately.
Interviews were recorded and transcribed; transcriptions
were used to generate a final case outline, which was
reviewed and approved by the firm. We returned to some
firms at several points in time, to gather updates or where
it was agreed that a follow-up interview, after information
on implementation and results had solidified, would be
20 j Research-Technology Management Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
Case Firms: Variations on the Agile–Stage-Gate Journey
Chamberlain, a US-based manufacturer of remote-controlled
household devices (for example, garage door openers),
moved to its hybrid model, Agile within Stage-Gate, in
2013, in order to resolve the conflict between hardware
developers, who used a stage-and-gate process, and software
developers, who relied on Agile (Cooper 2016). Agile
is employed in the development and testing stages of the
Stage-Gate system. Each stage is divided into a series of
sprints, each lasting exactly three weeks. Sprints follow
typical Agile procedures.
After four years using the system, David Schuda, Business
Transformation Leader, estimates “a 20–30 percent cycle
time reduction because there is much less ‘redo’ in projects
now” as well as improvements in productivity.
Danfoss, a producer of valves and fluid-handling equipment,
began piloting an Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid model for physical
products in mid-2015. While the company’s Stage-Gate
system remains in place and unchanged at the leadership
level, an adapted version of Agile-Scrum is used at the
project-team level throughout the entire development
process. Both design developments and customer validations
are executed in two-week sprints. Project teams are dedicated
and collocated and use Agile tools and procedures.
Bo Bay Jørgensen, Senior Director, Product Development
Program, told interviewers that the hybrid model has
“restarted our learning journey . . . now we are finally doing
what the Stage-Gate prescribes. We ask for early insights
from our customers, we adapt to learnings up front, and we
kill or significantly change the scope of projects when necessary
. . . much earlier than before.” The system has delivered a
30 percent reduction in time to market, measured from the
preliminary business case to launch.
GE’s Agile–Stage-Gate model, called “FastWorks,” has
been used for the company’s most important strategic
product development programs for the past three years
(Power 2014). The approach merges GE’s Stage-Gate
system with approaches drawn from Ries’s (2011) Lean
Startup, which mixes Agile and Lean principles. The
development program is governed by Stage-Gate,
with teams within the program using Agile methodology
within stages. The FastWorks model has three main stages:
Seed, Launch, and Grow. The Seed and Launch stages use
Agile, focusing on producing a minimum viable product and
collaborating closely with customers.
The new process has reduced the time before an
aero-engine is tested in flight from three to one and a half
Honeywell is a process controls firm whose development
programs include both software and hardware; thus, the
company’s Agile–Stage-Gate approach is designed for
both. The product development system includes three
layers: the leadership layer, focused on business decisions,
uses a Stage-Gate model; the lower two levels, which deal
with executing business decisions, use different versions
of Agile, one with two- to four-week sprints and one with
longer iterations of eight to twelve weeks. Teams are free
to choose what system they use and which specific Agile
practices they employ. Some hardware teams operate at
the eight-week iteration level, while teams that are heavily
integrated with software teams often do short sprints in
cadence with their software counterparts.
Global Technical Director Willem van der Werf notes that
it is premature to claim major improvements, but “touching
the customer regularly is having a positive impact by changing
the culture internally and yielding success in the marketplace
with several pilot projects.”
LEGO’s IT departments have experimented with Agile
for over a decade, but it was not adapted to the
development of manufactured products until 2015.
Agile is built into the firm’s Stage-Gate system. Within
stages, teams engage in sprints of one to four weeks;
sprints follow typical Agile processes—including sprint
planning meetings and daily stand-up meetings—and use
typical Agile tools.
Although formal metrics have not been installed, management
believes the hybrid model has been beneficial. One
interviewee told us, “Projects actually finish on time and
exceed expected market success.”
Tetrapak began using an Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid in one division
four years ago; the system is now being piloted across
the company. The company retained its traditional Stage-
Gate model, replacing the project manager, a core team,
and an extended team with a product owner, scrum master,
and semi-dedicated project team.
Tetra Pak is implementing Agile using a “learn and adapt”
approach, which is central to the new mindset. “Theorizing
forever will not get you anywhere,” says Pontus Andersson,
lead on Agile–Stage-Gate implementation. “We need to fail
fast, and learn and adapt our approach along the way.” For
example, the company initially started with four-week sprints
but realized after a few cycles that this was too short to
produce tangible products. Through feedback sessions
(retrospect meetings), the teams decided to try eight-week
sprints instead—and it worked!
Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers March—April 2018 j 21
Just as plans are constantly evolving in
Agile, so, too, are product definitions.
performance measures for the Agile–Stage-Gate model. In
spite of the lack of hard metrics, however, interviewees in
all six firms indicated that they believed they had achieved
significant benefits with the hybrid model. They estimated
approximately a 30 percent reduction in time to market
and a 30 percent improvement in productivity. These
improvements are consistent with results from other firms
in earlier studies (Cooper 2016). Other frequently cited
benefits include faster response to changing market conditions
and customer needs and higher project team morale.
Addressing Challenges in Practice
Integrating the Agile approach into an existing Stage-Gate
system is not easy. The case study firms identified a number
of issues and challenges they encountered when implementing
Agile within Stage-Gate for physical products.
Apparent inconsistencies exist between the two systems,
such as fluid versus fixed product definitions and short-term
versus long-term planning cycles. The case firms also
described a number of other challenges, including management
skepticism, a lack of resources to support dedicated
teams, and the difficulty of producing a concrete demonstration
product in a two-week sprint. These firms suggested a
range of potential solutions; we also discussed these issues
in several workshops and panel discussions (see “Additional
While Agile and Stage-Gate can work well together, each
balancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses, they can also
clash. Companies who hope to access the best of both systems
must find ways to resolve those clashes to create a harmonious
process. The potential conflicts become evident in the
struggle to balance short-term fluidity with long-term planning,
and Stage-Gate’s need for a concrete product definition
with Agile’s constantly evolving product definitions.
One of the core principles of the Agile Manifesto is
“maximizing the amount of work not done” (Beck et al.
2001). One outcome of this principle is an absence of longterm
plans—long-term plans don’t exist, for the simple
reason that they’ll not be valid for long, and so the work
of making them will be wasted. But manufacturers trying
to implement an Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid face a dilemma:
if the project plan is short term and evolving, how can
development times and costs—data needed to support a
business case and secure project approval—be estimated?
This dilemma can be resolved initially by creating a
schedule of tasks for each stage based on best estimates at
the time. The schedule is similar to a traditional project plan
or Gantt chart, but it is very tentative and much higher
level, providing just enough detail to allow an equally
tentative estimate of costs. At the same time, management
must learn to live with some ambiguity—and be prepared
to approve projects when plans, costs, and times are only
estimates that are likely to change. But, as one interviewee
pointed out, “There’s nothing really new here. We’re
always approving projects where costs and times change!”
The difference here is that the likelihood of change is
acknowledged—and embraced—up front.
Just as plans are constantly evolving in Agile, so, too, are
product definitions. In the Agile world, the product is
defined as it emerges through repeated iterations based
on customer feedback. Managers must remember, as
Peter Andersen, Senior Director of R&D at Danfoss noted,
“Agile–Stage-Gate allows for early and frequent customer
validations of physical and virtual product designs. The
main change is that design specifications are no longer fixed
up front, but are continuously adapted through the design
iterations: no longer is there a pre-Development design
freeze.” The product backlog—a list of features to be
implemented in the product—is not locked in early in the
project; it varies based on customer feedback and the results
of sprints, evolving over time as the project progresses
and more data becomes available, from experiments and
from customer feedback. Thus, as in planning and budgeting,
The case study firms provided the core data set for the
article, but case studies by their nature represent a very
limited sample size. In order to broaden the base of
information from which we derived insights, we sought
additional inputs from a larger sample of firms via two
channels: a set of workshops and panel participation.
Workshops. First, we gathered insights from participants
at 14 open workshops held in the United States (five
workshops, hosted by ISBM at Penn State University and
the Management Roundtable) and in Europe (four in
Germany, three in Denmark, and two in Sweden). Attendees
were both from other early-adopter companies and
from companies interested in adopting the new model.
Workshop sessions focused on problems with firms’ current
or classic Stage-Gate processes and key issues and
challenges in implementing Agile–Stage-Gate.
Panel. Both authors participated, along with some case
companies, Danfoss and LEGO Group, and other Danish
firms, on the advisory panel for an initiative sponsored by
the Danish government to introduce Agile–Stage-Gate to
mid-sized firms in that country. That experience provided
additional insights into what worked and what did not for
Some of these additional inputs were confirmatory,
reiterating what the case data had already revealed. Other
inputs provided new insights, especially regarding possible
solutions to challenges and issues identified by case
22 j Research-Technology Management Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
manufacturers must learn to accommodate more ambiguity
than they might be comfortable with in product definition,
moving forward based on a high-level, although again
somewhat tentative, product definition.
Addressing Management Skepticism
As Helen Hosang, a marketing director at Honeywell, told
interviewers, “Implementation involves a major cultural
transformation,” so leadership buy-in is critical. To be
successful, Hosang said, companies must “ensure that
[the] transformation is leadership sponsored and has
cross-functional buy-in and support.” That may be a simple
task, but it is not an easy one. Several interviewees, and
attendees at our workshops as well, noted skepticism from
the management team as a hindrance to the adoption of
Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid models. Management resistance
often arises from common misconceptions: many don’t
understand that implementing Agile does not mean
Case companies mostly sought to overcome this
resistance by designing their hybrid systems around
managers—the leadership team saw only results, not the
process. At Chamberlain, for instance, where senior leaders
were initially skeptical of the new Agile-Scrum system, the
product development function simply implemented the
changes at the project level. The senior management team
was not required to learn Agile because the traditional gates
remained intact. Similarly, Danfoss chose not to change its
Stage-Gate system, except to add risk assessment and
customer insights at an early gate. Here again, most of
the changes occurred at the project-team level, and project
leaders implemented the Agile approach. Senior leaders
saw only the project’s results at the gate points.
Designing the system in this way puts the focus for
leaders on results, not process, by measuring performance.
Solid, measurable results can go a long way in convincing a
skeptical leadership team. Many of our case companies are
missing an opportunity in this regard—only one of the six
case-study firms had implemented formal metrics to gauge
performance improvements, and that firm did so as a
matter of course, not with the aim of managing leadership
The main challenge for many manufacturers is finding the
resources needed to support an Agile approach—especially
the dedicated project teams required by a full implementation
of the system. Short sprints, daily stand-up meetings,
and quick deliverables are much more difficult—perhaps
even impossible—when team members are spread across
several other projects or not in regular contact with each
Case companies have largely found it untenable to have
people assigned to only one project at a time, but they have
experimented with various compromises. At Tetra
Pak, Pontus Andersson, Project Manager and lead on
Agile–Stage-Gate implementation, told interviewers, “First
we tried teams with people dedicated 50 percent of their
time, which did not work at all. Then we moved to 70
percent dedication, which was better but not optimal.
Now, the rule is a maximum of one other project per
person, taking no more than 30 percent of their time. This
works, but we might even have to move to 100 percent.”
Among both case companies and workshop attendees,
we’ve found that most manufacturers do make compromises
like Tetra Pak’s, not fully dedicating personnel
but limiting maximum loads. In workshop discussions, an
attendee from a major California bio-tech firm described
how his company handles the dedicated team challenge
by creating a single team that works on a cohort of concurrent
Agile–Stage-Gate projects—all similar projects and
requiring similar skills. This allows team members to stay
in constant contact and keeps them from being diverted
to other tasks; daily stand-ups may deal with more than
that one project. Another solution is to be selective about
which projects use the hybrid model.
Defining Sprint Deliverables
In software, a development team can usually produce something
that works—executable software code—by the end of
each sprint. The notion of a “done sprint” does not apply so
neatly to manufactured products. The development of a new
engine, medical device, or machine cannot be so easily
incrementalized. Even when it’s possible to create a concrete
prototype at a particular stage, it takes time—sometimes
longer than a typical sprint—to physically build it.
Our case companies have addressed this problem by
redefining “done” for physical product development. The
result of a done sprint in this context is not necessarily a
working product; it is merely some tangible result of the
work completed in that sprint. For example, in earlier
stages at the front end, the definition of “done” may be a
business case, or the results of preliminary experiments or
a voice-of-customer study. Beginning in the development
stage, however, a “done sprint” usually yields something
physical that the customer can respond to and management
can see: design drawings, a computer animation, a virtual
product, a crude model—in short, a product version somewhere
between a concept and a ready-to-trial prototype,
sometimes called a protocept or a pretotype.
At Honeywell, according to Willem van der Werf, “For
hardware developments, the definition of ‘done’ for a sprint
may be a ‘demo-able’ simulation, or something that is testable
or ‘integrate-able’ as opposed to having a shippable
software feature.” At Chamberlain, the “something
tangible” delivered by a sprint could be design drawings or
an early prototype, while at GE, the deliverables for a sprint
could be outcomes of virtual experiments conducted
through simulation modeling. The range of possible deliverables
is being extended by new technology: Newer techniques
such as computer simulation and 3D printing mean
that traditionally long-lead items (for instance, securing
cast components or making electronic circuit boards) are
disappearing from the Development phase (Cooper 2016).
Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers March—April 2018 j 23
One of the key questions is where to
integrate Agile—both where in the
product development process and for
Getting quick customer feedback at the end of the sprint
can also be a challenge. For software, getting feedback
involves sending the new feature to customers, usually
electronically, and soliciting feedback by the same channel.
But hardware products can’t be e-mailed or downloaded.
And some customers don’t want to move so fast or
cannot undertake tests so quickly. Case companies have
addressed this challenge in a number of ways. At LEGO
and Danfoss, entire sprints are devoted to seeking customer
validation. GE asks strategic customers to commit to take
part in the development process before the project is
initiated. The advantage for the customer in investing
their time and efforts is that the final product is fitted to
exactly their needs and instantly implementable into their
Deciding Where to Implement Agile
One of the key questions in implementing an Agile–
Stage-Gate hybrid is where to integrate Agile—both where
in the product development process and for which projects.
Fitting Agile into the Stage-Gate Structure
Agile practices may not work equally well for all stages of
product development. The ambiguity that can drive innovation
and productivity in early design may not be tolerable
in later stages, when precision is needed and planning is
Most of our case companies implemented Agile first in
the technical stages, development and testing. Often the
technical people heard about Agile first, frequently from
their own IT people, and decided to try it for the technical
work. The focus on producing a working or demonstrable
protocept as the sprint outcome suits the technical phases
of a new-product project, which are focused on addressing
technical and design issues. And technical people are more
likely to be dedicated to a single project, making implementation
easier from a resourcing standpoint in these phases.
Some companies, including Danfoss and LEGO, have
also found that the hybrid can work well in even earlier
phases, such as ideation and concept feasibility (Figure 2).
These firms find that Agile’s iterative nature fits well with
FIGURE 2. Agile–Stage-Gate at the fuzzy front end (adapted from Kielgast, Vedsmand, and Cooper 2016)
24 j Research-Technology Management Agile–Stage-Gate for Manufacturers
the design thinking methods (Brown 2008; Kielgast,
Vedsmand, and Cooper 2016) they use to build out
concepts in the front end, before the full-blown product
development process takes hold. Other functional areas, such
as marketers or manufacturing engineers, may find it more
difficult to adapt to the Agile way of working, but, as at
LEGO, given solid training, an effective change management
effort, and proper resource allocation, Agile–Stage-Gate can
work across the entire project development process.
Matching Projects to Processes
Although in theory the Agile–Stage-Gate hybrid is suitable
for all development projects, in practice the greatest
advantages may be reaped in more ambiguous and
uncertain initiatives. Where markets and customer needs
are known and stable, the linear structure of Stage-Gate
is not a disadvantage and it may be more efficient. Further,
Agile requires significant resources—not least, a fully
dedicated or nearly fully dedicated team—that simple
incremental projects may not warrant. Reserving Agile for
projects that truly need it can help make sure resources
are available for those projects.
Our case companies addressed this decision in different
ways. Chamberlain employs its hybrid approach only for
major revenue-generating projects—about 20 percent
of the projects in its development pipeline. At Danfoss,
Agile–Stage-Gate is applied to all innovation projects
(more transformational projects) across all divisions and
disciplines, from heating to cooling solutions to development
of power drives. And at LEGO, Agile–Stage-Gate
so far is reserved for development of LEGO Education
products and higher-tech products such as Mindstorms.
The potential gains are tempting, but the process of
implementing a hybrid model can be daunting. The
challenges can be managed, however, with management
buy-in and a clear, implementation process that allows
the company to build on previous learning.
Generally, the process begins with a small task force made
up of people from the different functional areas involved in
product innovation—technical, operations, marketing, and
sales—and from different business units and geographies.
The task force may employ an outside expert or facilitator
as well. While the task force is getting up to speed on the
Agile method, it also dissects the firm’s existing stage-andgate
process to produce a current state assessment. The first
task is often to streamline the current system, using Lean Six
Sigma methods (Fiore 2005) to make requirements less
onerous. For example, before Danfoss implemented Agile–
Stage-Gate, it first employed more traditional techniques to
make its existing innovation process leaner, cutting cycle
time in half even before the move to the hybrid model.
Once the Stage-Gate system is streamlined, the task
force then maps the new hybrid model, determining
where Agile will work, for which stages and which projects.
The task force must also determine how to address the
challenges that arise. In the spirit of Agile, however, the
Our case companies offered one piece
of resounding advice: “Just try it!”
team should avoid intricate over-planning. Instead, leaders
at Danfoss recommend beginning with a pilot project,
ensuring that it receives senior management attention and
sufficient resources, and watching to see what happens.
Most important, the task force must recognize that Agile–
Stage-Gate is still new: everyone is still learning how to do it
and there is not one right way to proceed. It’s important to
remember that this is a new way of working for both
executives and project teams. An interviewee at Tetra Pak cautioned
that project team members will have an “adjustment
time”—a period of frustration as they navigate what can be a
steep learning curve. Honeywell addressed this learning curve
by sponsoring extensive training for pilot teams and bringing
in external coaches to provide additional support; training
and coaching are now ongoing practices for the company.
Other case companies recommended adapting the model to
suit the organization and providing for open dialogue
throughout implementation to deal quickly with issues and
challenges as they arise.
Whatever approach is taken, however a company
decides to move forward, our case companies offered one
piece of resounding advice: “Just try it!”
Agile has revolutionized product development in the software
industry. Agile–Stage-Gate is now poised to transform
how new products are developed in the manufacturing
world. By combining Agile with the classic Stage-Gate
system, the new hybrid model promises to yield broad
impact across many industries. There are challenges in
reconciling the two approaches and in overcoming
organizational limitations, but most early-adopter firms
have found solutions. The greatest challenges are management
skepticism and finding the dedicated resources to
make this new model work. But businesses that embrace
Agile–Stage-Gate and commit the necessary resources
stand to reap benefits in increased R&D productivity, faster
time to market, and stronger new offerings.
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