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T he age of digital change is characterized by an increasingly dynamic world. For companies, this means that they no longer have years of planning security, break up existing value chains and make the emerging value networks more volatile, insecure and complex. This is made possible above all by digital technologies.

How should a company react to this? The answer you hear in lectures or events is “become agile”. It’s a nice term, but it leaves most people disoriented at first. So let’s take a look at exactly what lies behind it and to what extent agility is actually the key to success in a digitized world.

A software development process for manufacturing companies

First of all, agility (from the Latin “agilis”) means nothing other than “mobility” or “agility”. Agile organizations are therefore characterized by a high degree of adaptability and are in constant exchange with their environment in order to recognize unforeseen events or new requirements at an early stage. It is important that an agile organization does not react passively when a new requirement arises, but actively prepares for possible changes or regularly questions its own actions. For this purpose, the organization uses its heterogeneous networks, which go far beyond existing supply chains.

This poses a great challenge for organizations, especially since optimized processes are defined down to the smallest detail, especially in the manufacturing industry, which actually do not permit any changes or disruptions. Nevertheless, the process of agile development from the software industry has meanwhile established itself in many areas. In the agile process of software development, the path to the product is the decisive one; the development team is always ready to question all intermediate results again. This makes it possible to detect undesirable developments at an early stage and avoid problems based on them.

An essential feature of an agile organization is therefore to focus on the product and the performance, i.e. the result, instead of comprehensive process planning and documentation.

Reaction to external influences is decisive for production in the future

A major advantage of this constant scrutiny is that companies are more resistant to external crises, for example. This is also referred to as “resilience”. This resilience is one of the key capabilities of organisations in a dynamic market environment.

The concrete example of Deutsche Bahn shows, for example, that resilience is particularly inadequate in the event of infrastructure disruptions. The reaction to disruptions (e.g. storm damage) takes too long, passengers are only sparsely informed and replacement means of transport are often made available late. A similar situation occurs for manufacturing companies as soon as a disruption occurs in the supply process, which often brings the entire production process to a standstill.

Robust processes in companies that can react quickly are therefore the basic prerequisite for the use of new production technologies. The aim is to produce batch size 1 in a flexible production process at the cost of mass production. This is made possible by new manufacturing processes (e.g. 3D printing) or modular production machines networked with each other in a Smart Factory, which can react quickly to the individual requirements of workpieces on the basis of data analyses.

An agile organization is therefore characterized by the ability to react to changes and not only to function strictly according to predefined plans.

Disruption at the expense of quality?

Through agility, companies often achieve their goals faster and, ideally, error-free. However, agile corporate management is a challenge for quality management. In its classical form, quality management is also process-oriented and is therefore not able to take agile approaches into account. The reaction of quality managers is therefore that they reject disruption and agile processes with reference to the lack of control standards.

For companies this means that they have to redefine their understanding of quality management. Assuming that an agile process follows certain rules and has clear role responsibilities, the focus is on employees. If they are sufficiently trained for their role in the agile process, they make fewer mistakes or notice immediately when mistakes occur and must already be reported.

It is therefore a matter of a comprehensive change in the organizational culture.

The human being in the center, using creativity for agile processes.

In organizations without agility, processes are defined and tools used. The most valuable resource of an organization is the human being. With his creativity and the ability to network, he can react to unusual situations and develop a new solution. Think, for example, of the Apollo 13 mission when three astronauts were trapped in a spaceship that was no longer functioning, the way back to Earth seemed blocked, the situation hopeless. But then the personnel on the ground succeeded in working out a completely new solution, which finally made the rescue possible.

The core of this development was the use of individual creativity combined with intensive interaction (all at the same table working on the solution). Another important feature was the high pressure in the project, as the lives of the astronauts were in concrete danger. This example shows that any company can learn that it must give its employees the opportunity to interact in order to achieve even better results. Printing, in turn, comes from a clearly defined timeframe and quality is assured by a process owner.

For agile companies, this means drawing up well thought-out plans for the future and thus giving employees room for experimental future orientation. Lateral thinking between the divisions, tolerating mistakes and innovations and rewarding the creativity of employees are core elements of an agile corporate culture. From the management’s point of view, this means shortening the decision-making paths between employees and managers and developing a lean organizational structure and workflow. To achieve this, you should also make use of all the technological possibilities available today for software-supported corporate organization.

Reflection on one’s own strengths accumulated in the past is the core for the ability of further development. It is essentially a matter of reflecting and strengthening one’s own potential for change.

Conclusion – if you want to be agile, you need to start today

So let’s summarize, in an AgilEcosystem especially the companies that seriously adapt their organizational culture to agile work have good chances. This starts with leadership, which must be able to strengthen the organization’s ability to change, and goes all the way to each individual employee, who must actively contribute his or her creativity to the development of the company. In an agile company there is no single responsible person, but only a successful company with many good employees who take responsibility for (partial) results.

What does this mean for you as an entrepreneur? Start today! A first starting point could be the numerous meetings, hour fixes and voting rounds. Shorten them by 50% and keep them standing in the future. You’ll see how this inspires agile thinking. Everybody should have the chance to talk about their current topic and above all to name the obstacles that stand in their way.


Dr. Alexander Bode