Cell chemistry R&D productivity improvement with Agile methodology

Blog Post
Yaron Fein, Executive VP R&D

About two years ago, we realized that to accelerate our product development, minimizing time-to-market, we needed to make a substantial change in our R&D team structure and how we managed projects. 

StoreDot has a serious, substantial team that includes 35 PhDs. With that sort of resource at our disposal it was always a delicate balance between academic exploration and hitting commercial targets. Without losing sight of our core mission: helping to encourage the mass adoption of electric vehicles with StoreDot’s extreme fast charging technologies. 

To solve this, we decided to be the first to adopt Agile project methodologies, using established techniques for software design, but for battery development. 

It was so unconventional that as we were searching, locally and abroad, for the right consulting firm to work with us. It took a while for everyone we interviewed to wrap their head around this concept.  Even those working with non-high-tech companies (such as banks), had only experienced software project management agile implementation. That includes Ajimeh, the consulting firm we eventually chose. But they were flexible enough to adapt the methodology from the software world to the Electrochemistry world.

The (organizational) challenges we were trying to solve

Our talented anode, cathode and electrolyte teams were siloed, with each focused on their own tasks and targets. It was hard to connect the dots, and even efficiently evaluating results of experiments was a complicated task. Our project Gantt charts ran over a full calendar year, constantly showing delays and irrelevant tasks. Not surprisingly, as projects that are research-oriented, have high degrees of uncertainty, making it practically impossible to plan ahead. All of which affected our ability to be responsive, and, well, agile.

Switching gears: a transformation is a challenge

Change isn’t easy for everyone and can be dramatic when people are required to adjust their mindsets. 

At the core of the transformation, and as we realized that we must have a holistic organizational view, we’ve now set the following goals, with our people in mind: 

  1. Context: a project starts with a view of the broad picture. All researchers and engineers understand the function of their work in the flow.
  2. Focus: rather than long-term planning with high risk and uncertainty that makes planning ineffective, we now break the development into short four-week iterative cycles (“sprints”), each starts with pre-planning and evaluation of the previous cycle, followed by setting specific goals, execution planning and updates; summary and evaluation. If priorities change, we reshuffle in a more short-term manner, without having to rock the boat. Research and experiments are closely coordinated with corporate goals, and there is less room for an unplanned, unlimited theoretic academic exploration, that eventually deviates from a practical solution. 
  3. Transparency and communication: using collaborative tools such as Kanban boards, we maintain ongoing open discussion on priorities, tasks and progress.  
  4. Creativity and innovation: each project is being tackled by a multidisciplinary team of experts specializing in a broad spectrum of disciplines, including organic chemistry, nano-particles, molecule design, materials and electro-chemistry, cell design and process design. Thus, a challenge is being answered with a creative solution, based on different disciplines and perspectives. More important – while goals for each Sprint are set by the project management (the “What”), the team is responsible for proposing the tasks (the “How”) that will fulfill these goals. We moved away from a centralized development process where researchers execute tasks coming from more senior peers or managers, to a process where researchers are encouraged to bring their own solutions to the table. Obviously, this is a much better use of the total “brain power” we have, and a much more motivating process.
  5. Effective management and coordination: each project team has a project manager, that is responsible for setting the goals, and an “agile coach” (we have renamed the more commonly known “Scrum master” role), typically one of the team members, that serves as the team moderator, and makes sure that there are no impediments preventing the team from executing their committed tasks. On the other hand, the group leaders, stopped being “dispatchers” allocating tasks to their team members, and turned into highly skilled mentors, providing professional guidance and support to their team members.
  6. Productivity: above all, our commitment is to meet realistic deadlines. The new methodology, that has cleaned up all background noises, now allows the teams to efficiently plan and work in tandem on what’s important, and nothing but it. Tasks are being assigned proportionally and group leaders have the flexibility to reallocate resources as needed. Time spent on endless meetings has been slashed- allowing the teams to devote as much time as possible for uninterrupted work, based on goals they have set for themselves and naturally, we in return see a higher personal commitment and productivity.
Image source: StoreDot

Boaz and Michal of Ajimeh Consulting, who have facilitated the progress, shared their perspective on the process we went through: “the way that StoreDot decided to address such a radical change, during the already complicated COVID-era, gave us a strong indication as to the adventurous and unique spirit of the company. Traditionally, companies approach us as they face the challenge of ‘we’re not sure how to sell our product’. We realized we’re facing a company that is eager to examine the journey, to challenge the ‘how and why’, with a balance between a bold entrepreneurial spirit and dominant traditional academic disciplines. Throughout the process, the (very smart) people have been placed in the center and have been given a tremendous power to decide and influence. The change has been visible! One could suddenly see physical gathering and stimulating brainstorming sessions. Team members have continuously attested, ‘I now fully understand the context of what we’re working on’.

"As the process unfolded, we came across interesting unforeseen changes. The role of managers has changed dramatically, as it became broader and called for more mentoring and guidance. They have sometimes realized that their involvement may lead to an undesired outcome, and that they have to take a step back. The new layout created a solid ground for more layers of experiments; new communication ‘language’; visual boards; new complex requirements and vision, all based on trust and collaboration.  

"And last but not least- we often experience some rejection from the teams we work with, as they feel threatened by the change and transformation. At StoreDot we found great openness to mutual learning. As it was clear to everyone that we’re not here to teach them how to develop this groundbreaking technology, the positive atmosphere was purely receptive for learning a new type of skillset".