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An Agile Approach and Engineering Projects: Do They Go Together?

The agile working model has its roots in IT, but its effectiveness means that it can be beneficial to many other projects, including those related to mechanical, aerospace, and energy-related projects. These industries have historically banked their success on the oldest and most established method, the waterfall method, but the effectiveness of an agile approach — plus its relevance to the modern era — means companies are increasingly adopting the principles to manage their projects.

In this article, we’ll outline why agile adoption is on the rise and why the waterfall method may soon become a thing of the past.

Why An Agile Approach Works

It would take something pretty special to unseat the waterfall method, which has been the king of operations since it was introduced to the working world in 1970. So why are companies switching to agile? The answer is short and sweet: because it gets results. Below, we’ll outline just a few of the many reasons why agile is useful for the management of engineering projects.

It’s Less Rigid

In an ideal world, the project result would be squarely in line with the original project vision. But this isn’t an ideal world. Experienced engineering project managers know full well that projects can change course throughout the journey. Sometimes, these changes are subtle and easily absorbable; at other times, they result in a drastically different end result.

With the waterfall method, managers need to contort the project to fit the new goals, which doesn’t always work — and basically never works without plenty of headaches. The agile approach is much less rigid, which means it’s much easier to change course throughout the project. This doesn’t just make the process of working more straightforward but results in a better final product.

It Can Keep Costs Down

Engineering projects are rarely cheap. Quite the opposite. If the cost was capped, then that’d be fine, but they’re not — one Deloitte study showed that aerospace projects suffer from extensive overrun costs, which average around 51%. That’s no chump change. A significant portion of those overrun costs comes from extensive reworks, which are both expensive and a big cause of delays.

The agile approach reduces the likelihood of significant reworks since, unlike the waterfall method, teams don’t need to resort to a much earlier incarnation of the project. They’re better equipped to take it in their stride.

It Can Be Faster

Those reworks aren’t just expensive. They’re time-consuming. Imagine climbing three-quarters of the way up Mount Everest, realising that you took a wrong turn, then having to go back to one-quarter up the mountain to take the right turn. That’s what it can be like using the waterfall method. The agile approach doesn’t mean that you won’t hit delays, but it does reduce the chances of hitting significant delays. You might roll twenty feet down the mountain, rather than two hundred feet. The end result is that you’ll get the project completed more quickly, and it’ll likely cost less, too.

It Empowers Teams

When thinking of the agile method, it’s important not to think solely of the end product. It’s important to think of the process of getting there. As a working model, agile works because it empowers teams, who have greater control, more interaction with the client, and more access to and collaboration with other departments of the project. Done correctly, the agile approach produces motivated, passionate teams who are also well-organised. And when you have all those things in one team, you can expect success to be more likely than not.

It Continually Reduces Risk

There’s always going to be risk in mechanical, aerospace, and energy-related projects. It’s part of the game. Yet, while project managers can’t eliminate risk, they can certainly reduce it just by using the agile method.

This happens in multiple ways. First, since the agile approach encourages strong teamwork among all compartments of the project, potential and real risks are more likely to be identified at an early stage. Plus, since deliverables are incremental, there’s less chance of a last-minute change.

In all, there are simply more checks in place, effectively allowing for continuous risk awareness.

The Bottom Line: Success is More Likely

It would take a lot for a new working method to unseat the waterfall method, especially for high-pressure engineering projects. But the bottom line is that the agile approach has shown repeatedly to be more effective than its waterfall counterpart. For that reason, there’s value in project managers incorporating agile into their projects, even if they have thus far been committed to waterfall.


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