Brightly-colored stools for workstations, writable walls, Post-it Notes on the windows and a cozy coffee kitchen in the middle of the room – definitely a creative working environment. And working creatively is what MTU’s Digital Solutions Team is all about. Founded in April 2017, the team is no longer brand new, but for a company like MTU that was founded 109 years ago, the way it works is definitely novel: agile, with a horizontal organizational structure and a culture that makes mistakes in order to learn from them. Two of those involved in developing this new way of working are Mark Kugel (27) and Thomas Schladt (57).
“Entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down,” said Mark Kugel. “You just have to take the plunge, soak up knowledge as fast as you can and hit the ground running.” It was this approach that Kugel hoped to introduce in the company when he joined the Digital Solutions team at MTU in summer 2017. As a successful startup founder he knows what he is talking about. His first encounter with the startup spirit came in a postgraduate course on digital entrepreneurship, where he learned how to transform a raw concept into a marketable product in the shortest possible time. Together with two colleagues he founded his own company ‘useley GmbH’, that provided an online platform where users could hire products like cameras, drills or drones from third parties. “We went through the entire startup learning curve. With all the highs and definitely with plenty of lows,” Kugel recalled. He had to find investors and coworkers – and he had to learn how to take lots of knocks. Along with his co-founders, he invested blood, sweat and tears as well as a great deal of time in the project, but the enthusiasm is still clearly there when he recounts his experiences. He radiates the feeling that he lives for his job and identifies completely with what he does.
At first glance, Thomas Schladt seems to have very little to do with startups. After graduating from the Technical University in Darmstadt, he began his career at MTU – and he has remained there right up to the present. Although he has had no experience at other companies, he has always been open to new challenges. In 30 years at the company he has had eight different jobs, the last of which was in Controlling. Nevertheless, true to form, he decided he wanted to do something completely new before retiring – something that would make a difference. “Even after 30 years of professional experience, I still think it is important to stay open and inquisitive,” he declared. So now he is responsible for data management in the Digital team, i.e. for making sure all the data needed is available. “What annoyed me most at first was not having a fixed place to work from,” he smiled, recalling the switch to his new team. No one in the Digital team has his/her own desk. People work where they can work best at any given time whether it is on the sofa, at the counter in the kitchen or at a desk.
Agile working for rapid results
After selling ‘useley GmbH’ Kugel joined MTU, intent on putting his ideas into practice on a global scale as soon as possible. The aim of the Digital Solutions section is to develop digital products and services for customers. “We want to use digital tools to strengthen our links with our customers so we can provide much more effective service support,” said Kugel. “If we can effectively analyze our customers’ data, we can enhance the product development process and improve the quality of our products even more,” added Thomas Schladt, outlining another major benefit of digitalization.
The team currently has around 40 members, and that number could increase to as many as 70. The way they work resembles a startup company: fast, agile and customer-oriented. However, agile working does not mean noting the customer’s requirements and then disappearing into the cellar for six years before emerging with a finished product. “We hold intensive discussions with our customers because we need to understand what they actually need,” explained Kugel. During a series of ‘sprint’ phases usually lasting for a defined period of a few weeks, the team then creates a prototype relatively quickly before gathering feedback from the customer once more. The actual product development process does not start until a number of feedback loops have been completed to verify whether the product concept created really matches the customer’s needs.
Based on this approach, the team has developed digital products like ‘MTU Go! Act’ and ‘MTU Go! Manage’. These facilitate and safeguard communication between the operator of an MTU product, the MTU service organization and the MTU specialist. They also collate the data collected at a single location and help both the customer and our company to operate products more effectively.
“Our people here have an extremely positive mindset. Everyone is out to change something,” said Kugel, describing motivation within the group. The teams form themselves depending on the task in hand and the few hierarchies that exist are horizontal. “That doesn’t mean that agility can solve everything,” he acknowledged. For example, it would not be possible to completely develop a new energy system just in ‘sprints’. Nevertheless, the rapid feedback involved is especially useful for digital products. Once a design has been developed, the next task is to get all the other departments in the company involved, because the team needs the expertise available in the other specialist departments to develop the actual product. “We have an infrastructure that has grown up over decades. The big challenge is to harness it effectively,” said Schladt. Considering how infectious the enthusiasm of these two digitalists is, that should not prove too difficult.