You might have heard the parable about the pottery class. At this point, it’s classic internet lore. To the best I can tell, it first appeared in the 2001 book Art and Fear.

Irrespective of origins, it goes something like this.

The Story

A pottery teacher splits her class into two groups at the beginning of the term.

The first is instructed to create one, perfect pot over the course of the semester. The second is told to work together to make as many pots as possible. A classic trade-off: quality vs. quantity.

The end of the semester comes, and the teacher gathers the class to review their work.

Group one offers a single, high-quality pot. Their pot is attractive, free from defects, and reflects they work they put into it.

The second group presents a table full of pots. Some of the pots are lumpy, uncentered, and poorly painted. They don’t look good.

But the teacher keeps scanning the second group’s output, and soon she finds a cluster of excellent work. When these pots are placed side by side with group one’s single pot, they are clearly of higher quality.

All told, the group working in quantity produced 10 pots of a higher caliber than the group aspiring toward quality.

How could this be?

The teacher reasoned that the group working in quantity learned from their mistakes. For every poorly formed pot, they honed a skill and improved their technique. After 20, 30, 40 pots, their improvements were tangible.

Most importantly, they raised their baseline. These students could now produce a higher quality product, faster, because they had perfected a process.

They could do so precisely because they made mistakes along the way.

What the Story can Tell Us About Agile Manufacturing.  

Iterate Faster

The Agile method argues that the largest improvements are really the accrual of many small, incremental improvements over time. In other words, manufacturers need to constantly revisit, assess, and adjust their processes. You can’t know how to best improve a process until you’ve completed it.

This is because new information emerges in the process of doing. For example, the students in the pottery class could have struggled with wheel speed, hand pressure, kiln temperature, throwing technique, or glaze application. They never would have known, however, without making mistakes.

Similarly, manufacturers contend with hundreds–thousands, even–of variables in the course of production. A process engineer can’t know which to improve without the data gathered through iteration.

Deliver Smaller Pieces of Value More Frequently

This point follows from the first.

The second group in the pottery class wasn’t concerned with creating the perfect pot. Rather, they were concerned with improving upon the previous. This required scoping and executing a smaller improvement.

This point is especially applicable to manufacturing. Quality is a notoriously vague term in manufacturing. There is no perfect product. So instead of focusing on a distant future state of quality, it’s better to focus on tangible improvements that can be measured and adjusted in the present.

Agile method lives in the small pieces of value delivered at a rapid rate.

Mistakes are the Basis of Improvement

The phrase “fail fast, fail often” is a truism in agile circles. This is because mistakes are the basis of real education.

In other words, you don’t know how to improve until you tried and failed. That is, if you’re failing with intent and reflection.

Collaboration Multiplies the Rate of Improvement

This part of the story is easy to miss. The students in the quantity group weren’t taking instructions for a central leader. According to the parable, there was no leader (though this could just be my reading).  

Agile methodology suggests that the most effective teams are self-organizing teams.

And agile manufacturing holds that the most effective transformations are bottom-up. Those closest to manufacturing challenges understand them best. The better operators, engineers, managers, and the business collaborate, the more effective operations will be as a whole.

Tulip, the manufacturing app platform, helps manufacturers stay agile in every aspect of their operations. Curious how Tulip can help you test and iterate more often? Start a free trial today.