By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
The Harvard Business Review published an interesting piece recently on project management approaches and the debate between people who prefer the structured waterfall method and those who have embraced agile management methodologies.
Most of you are likely familiar, but to recap, the waterfall approach is a more traditional way to manage a project with clear steps and milestones that must be met before moving on to the next phase. For example, a simplified model for a software installation would have a product selection phase, followed by a test/pilot, and then a full rollout.
Agile, on the other hand, emerged from software development projects and focuses more on group collaboration, rapid iteration, and continuous change. So, for companies that were writing software, the idea was to deliver a product quickly, and then work with beta users and clients to work out bugs, identify new functionality, and provide upgrades and patches fairly frequently.
Because agile was pretty successful in the software industry, other types of businesses began adopting that approach for other types of projects. As you can imagine, this much different style was not enthusiastically embraced by everyone, but it offered some clear value in terms of time-to-market, and in addressing the weaknesses of traditional project management – namely, rigidity, an inability to adjust to changing conditions, and late discovery of problems that resulted in costly rework.
In field service, agile has been deployed not just for specific projects, but also as a general business practice that can help companies respond more quickly to changing customer, staffing and financial realities.
The Pros of a Hybrid Approach
The HBR piece suggests a hybrid approach that combines some of the rigor of waterfall (having clearly defined goals and good documentation) with the flexibility of agile (being able to pivot based on stakeholder input or new information). That basic premise fits field service well, particularly when thinking beyond project management. Service is an industry where technicians need to rigorously adhere to service level agreements, safety requirements, and other processes/practices, while also being able to creatively solve problems, adjust schedules, and respond to volatile levels of demand with a workforce that may have varying skill levels.
That's why agile as a mindset instead of a methodology is more valuable in this environment. A few years ago, I spoke to Amanda Moore at Schneider Electric about that company's adoption of agility. She also emphasized that you need structure and buy-in – there has to be a clear understanding of where you want to go and what type of organization you want to be, as well as an alignment across groups.
Luckily, field service technicians have long embraced agility, whether they would refer to it that way or not. Even when arriving to conduct fairly straightforward repairs, they always have to be prepared for the unexpected – a problem they were not expecting, an environmental condition that could make the repair take longer, or some other type of issue that they couldn't anticipate.
Further up the chain of command, agility has become increasingly important. Field service organizations need to be flexible enough to respond to changing customer demands that, in some cases, could significantly shake up their business model. Instead of break-fix service, clients may want preventive maintenance contracts or guaranteed uptime. You may need to incorporate remote service to address staffing shortages or invest in training resources as equipment becomes more complex, integrated, and connected.
It also helps to have a technology platform that enables that type of flexibility. Field service management platforms not only need to provide flexible and responsive scheduling, but also equip technicians and managers with tools that can help them report new conditions or customer needs, and then use that data to provide better service or create new offerings to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
An agile approach to field service provides companies with the ability to adapt in what has become a rapidly evolving market. For companies that have implemented agile methodologies for projects, consider the successes you've seen there, and how they can be applied more broadly across the company – from the way technicians respond to events in the field, to how management sells service to new and existing customers.