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Examining A Real World Example: An Agile Approach Leads to Project Success

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An Agile Airplane?

Agile is well known in the software world, but it has wider applications in other industries. As a project management approach, it might not be ideal to apply it to building a condo or a new factory. Yet, in industries where products undergo multiple iterations before being customer-ready, an agile approach can lead to project success.

Project management principles and techniques feature heavily in aircraft design. An airplane can be agile, which is how Boeing developed the 777 in the 1990s and the 787 Dreamliner in the early 2010s. There are other circumstances when project management techniques aren't fully utilized and projects fail to meet market and customer standards. Let’s look at two examples from Boeing where the agile approach was used—the 777 and the 787—successfully. Then, let’s examine the 737 MAX and where an agile approach could have turned the project around.

Successfully Applying Agile Principles to the 777 & 787 Dreamliner

The development of the Boeing 777 had two main requirements. First the availability of new technology—computer-aided design (CAD)—was key. The second requirement was people management.

These requirements are best described using fail fast/prototyping and team of teams.

Fail Fast/Prototyping: Pre-CAD, planes were designed via 2D drawings (drafting) and were either inspected using actual prototypes that would be built and sent for physical fit-checks, or entire aircrafts would be assembled and adjustments would be executed on the spot. Inevitably this would be expensive when adjustments were required.

The 777 was the first airplane to be developed when CAD technology was becoming widely available. This meant that parts being designed all around the world (e.g., wings in X and doors in Y) could be virtually prototyped on a computer. The fit could be checked before having to fabricate any physical parts, and adjustments could be made quickly before fabrication. Errors could be reduced ahead of time or designs could be changed to suit customer requirements after getting feedback on the virtual prototypes. This is a great example of the “Fail Fast” approach in Agile.