Scrum 101: Using Scrum outside of software development

Scrum is a working method designed for software development. The Scrum Alliance published a quick but comprehensive summary of what Scrum is, and what its goals are, and that page includes this very condensed outline:

The Scrum framework in 30 seconds

  • A product owner creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog.
  • During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces.
  • The team has a certain amount of time — a sprint (usually two to four weeks) — to complete its work, but it meets each day to assess its progress (daily Scrum).
  • Along the way, the ScrumMaster keeps the team focused on its goal.
  • At the end of the sprint, the work should be potentially shippable: ready to hand to a customer, put on a store shelf, or show to a stakeholder.
  • The sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective.
  • As the next sprint begins, the team chooses another chunk of the product backlog and begins working again.

When I got my Scrum Master training, I was the only person in the room who wasn’t working in software development. That meant that I couldn’t use Scrum exactly as it’s intended to be used: It’s not designed for projects that have lead-times. Software doesn’t really have waiting periods, where you’re waiting for a manufacturer to make a tool for a part, or where you’re waiting on 12 weeks of cycle testing, for instance.

When you’re working in hard goods, you aren’t talking about a potentially shippable product at the end of a sprint, but you are still talking about the work being ready to show to a stakeholder. But once you wrap your head around how you need to scope out the work and break up the tasks, it’s a really useful framework. What you wind up doing is breaking up tasks into smaller pieces that are less time-dependent. For instance, the task isn’t “make parts” — it winds up being several smaller tasks, that can be divvied up into various sprints (“finalize tool design” and “submit purchase order for tool” and “complete first article inspection on parts made with new tool,” for instance).

We used the Scrum framework to organize the development and manufacturing teams’ work to build out and stand up a manufacturing plant. The development team had been using the scrum framework for about a year by that point. I was the team’s Scrum Master. (I wrote a bit about my thinking on the Scrum Master role as a Facilitator role.) During the knowledge transfer process, when the development team and manufacturing team were working very intensively together, the manufacturing team switched to using Scrum as well. One of the engineers got Scrum Master training as well, and I showed the manufacturing team how the development team had been using this slightly-modified version of Scrum. Here’s the quick presentation I made for introducing the method to the whole team:

I did some training with the manufacturing team to help them get up to speed (how to estimate effort for chunks of work, how to get unit-of-measure-loving engineers comfortable with the idea of completely subjective point values for effort, how to build a backlog spreadsheet with a burndown chart — straightforward stuff, but practical examples based on how the company was already using these tools).

Working as two aligned scrum teams had two really valuable impacts. One was that it became much easier to schedule work that involved both teams, because there was a lot more visibility into work scope and schedule. The other was that folks were able to support each other: folks regularly attended the other team’s sprint reviews to see the presented completed work, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

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