Over the course of the 20th Century, Toyota refined its processes for minimising wasted time and effort in its factories so it could deliver more cars, faster.
The famed Toyota Production System, or TPS, was hugely influential and much-imitated in all industries, giving way to a movement called “lean manufacturing,” as in manufacturing without waste.
The principles of the TPS and lean manufacturing ended up inspiring the world of programmers, with the rise of so-called “agile” and “lean” software development. The same way Toyota used the system to build more cars, programmers are adapting similar methodologies to deliver more software, faster, Facebook-style.
Now, things are starting to come full circle, says Rob Mee, CEO of $2.8 billion startup Pivotal — a software company and consultancy that’s helped customers like Ford and GE (both of whom are also Pivotal investors) learn how to deliver code the way that Silicon Valley does.
As the manufacturing industry, and every other industry besides, looks to the so-called “Internet of Things” to automate their businesses and explore new ways of doing things, they suddenly have a need for lots of software, delivered fast. And so these industries are turning to agile software development, inspired by the TPS.
“The ability to update more quickly is really an advantage,” says Mee.
When worlds collide
Generally speaking, Mee says, the barriers between the worlds of the physical and the digital are starting to come down, as the software industry starts to build physical goods, and physical manufacturers start to build software.
“You can see how the world of the physical is moving into the world of the digital,” Mee says. “Those worlds are moving closer.”
That extends to consumer goods, like the Nest thermostat or the on-board software on every Tesla, both of which are getting new features and updates all the time, delivered via the Internet.
But it’s also true for manufacturing, or shipping, or anything, really, amid the rise of the so-called “Industrial Internet of Things,” where even the hugest industrial machines are getting much smarter and more automated by way of software.
The principles of building software for consumer goods aren’t exactly the same as those for powering industrial machines, Mee says. After all, if you’re building massive jet turbines, and there’s a bug in the code, “the consequences aren’t the same as they are at Facebook,” he says.
Still, the general philosophies behind agile have bearing no matter how you look at it.
The general tenets of agile software development, as espoused by Pivotal, is around taking away all the barriers to letting developers, well, develop.
“You’re putting power in the hands of the developer,” Mee says.
For starters, that means arming them with the tools they need to do their work without having to go through the provisioning cycle with the IT department or otherwise jump through any hoops. In an industrial setting, those platforms often end up being GE’s Predix cloud, Microsoft Azure, or IBM’s and SAP’s own cloud offerings.
You can’t just buy those platforms and expect magic to happen, though, says Mee. It requires real organizational change, which is a core tenet of agile development. If you’re not trimming away things like unused product features, paperwork, or even extraneous meetings, you’ll never get good at building software fast.
“What’s the point? Your needs don’t move that quickly,” Mee says.
Naturally, it’s a lot easier to embrace this at a small startup than it is somewhere like Ford or GE, where there are literally centuries of tradition and process to overcome to make this change.
“It’s certainly more challenging for really large enterprises to make that shift,” Mee says. “There’s so many more things that have been built up for many years against it, sometimes for good reason.”
The way to overcome that resistance, Mee says, isn’t to hold a big meeting where you declare your new priorities, but rather to demonstrate the principles at work and lead by example…even if you only go one small team at a time.
“You can’t just say from the top, ‘we have a new culture, and this is what it is,'” Mee says.