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Sustainable Product Development Using Agile and Value Stream Mapping

Sustainable product development can be done by combining agile with concepts from the circular economy in our daily work. Value stream mapping can be extended to incorporate circular economy principles to optimize the flow of materials, information, and energy usage.

Ines Garcia spoke about sustainable product development using agile and value stream mapping at XP 2023.

The aim of sustainable product development is to build products that endure over time, Garcia mentioned. We can support sustainable product development using concepts from the circular economy in our daily work.

Being sustainable is not just about the product itself. It’s also about the people, time, the energy involved in the process, and the consumption that its existence requires, Garcia said. If any single part of the process cannot be maintained over time, it’s unsustainable, Garcia argued.

Garcia explained that when agile is truly embedded in the fabric of an organisation, the practices enable businesses to be adaptable, efficient, and sustainable:

By embracing circular economy principles, agile practitioners can reduce their environmental footprint, focus on value impact, and minimize waste. Agile promotes collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement, all of which align with the goals of the circular economy.

Designing products for re-use involves considering their entire lifecycle, from raw materials to end-of-life disposal. Think up and downstream activities, which includes modular design, using durable and recyclable materials, and implementing take-back programs, Garcia said.

According to Garcia, the benefits of designing products for re-use are reduced resource consumption, minimized waste generation, cost savings through product longevity (this also includes software!), and the creation of new revenue streams through product-as-a-service models.

Value stream mapping is a common agile practice in our toolbox. Garcia came up with the concept of extending it to incorporate circular economy principles by mapping the entire value stream, identifying areas of waste and inefficiency, and evaluating the feasibility of circular strategies at each step:

You bring together representatives of each vertical section of your system map and collaborate to outline time spent in between each vertical area. Think of it being in a queue ready to be consumed by the next vertical step. This way you can co-create ways to streamline it.

The common practice of value stream mapping only looks at one variable: time. Garcia enriched it with variables beyond "time"; including materials and energy, to find the leverage points and how to streamline it throughout the whole value chain.

Organisations can identify opportunities to reduce waste, extend product lifetimes, and recover valuable materials. Value stream mapping helps optimize the flow of materials, information, and energy within a circular value stream, Garcia concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Ines Garcia about designing products for re-use and and infusing sustainability in retrospectives.

InfoQ: How can we design products for re-use and what benefits can that bring?

Ines Garcia: As an example of moving the concept of the product from material-based to value-based, let’s look at lightning. Putting our circular economy hats on, lightning as product-as-a-service is a circular business model which for example Signify adopted.

The circular economy approach includes:

  • Performance-based payments: Customers pay a monthly fee based on lighting system performance, reducing resource consumption and promoting longer product life cycles.
  • Reusability and recyclability: the manufacturer therefore designs lighting fixtures for easy repair, replacement, and eventual reuse/recycling, minimizing waste generation.
  • Energy efficiency: professional management of lighting systems optimizes energy consumption, resulting in significant energy savings and reduced emissions.
  • Reduced capital costs: adopting similar models eliminates the need for upfront capital investment, making efficient solutions more accessible to businesses and organizations.

InfoQ: How can we infuse sustainability and circularity into agile retrospectives?

Garcia: You may have heard of "Planet as a Stakeholder" retrospective format suggested by Marjolein Pilon, which uses green software engineering to find answers and practical ideas on reducing carbon footprint as a Scrum team. This format can also be used to support circular development.

You can create your own take on the core of Circular Economy:

  • Keep products and materials in use for as long as possible
  • Reduce waste and pollution and
  • Regenerate natural systems

You may want to design the retrospective to start with a "Planet Check-In" to raise awareness of the environmental impact, then move to review green software engineering principles, then gather individual input on the current state and desired improvements, and bring it to a close by collectively choosing actions that promote circularity and sustainability.

This helps teams reflect on their practices and identify opportunities for positive change. I believe that any concept of sustainability can be downscaled to industries, supply chains, organisations, departments, teams, communities, households, and individuals.

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