Disruptive changes are currently shaking up the automotive industry. In order to turn the associated challenges into opportunities, ZF has been transforming its organization and work processes for some time now. Highly developed teamwork, with a pronounced sense of individual responsibility, ensures greater speed and customer proximity as well as improved quality of results.

Automation, digitalization, and electromobility have greatly changed the automotive industry in the blink of an eye. Another driving force for this change includes societal demand for more efficiency, conservation of resources and better climate protection. The objective and shared philosophy of the technology company is not only to respond to the abovementioned trends but also to play a crucial role in shaping the mobility of tomorrow.

Embracing change as a guarantee for long-term success

In order to meet the challenges ahead, ZF has been rolling out new approaches to work for some time now. First and foremost, this involves accelerating decision-making and using agile work methods on a grand scale. These and other measures are integral parts of the corporate strategy of “Next Generation Mobility.” In this regard, a wide variety of initiatives have been launched in all areas of the Group, all of which strive to make the organization fit for “Next Generation Mobility.” A specially established Transformation Office is coordinating and accompanying the change initiatives throughout the company.

Agile methods on the rise

Agile work is playing a key role in the change process. In this context, agility often means making changes to tried-and-true procedures in order to get better at what we do and to meet new challenges. New types of teams are relying on agile methods in day-to-day work, operating in a structured and autonomous manner and with a high degree of self-organization. This allows ZF to more quickly adapt to changing conditions and more promptly respond to new demands from customers.


“The world will never again move as slowly as it does today.”

Dr. Michael Ebenhoch, Head of Development for the Car Powertrain Technology Division

Development of transmissions in teams working independently

The example of the Development department of ZF’s Car Powertrain Technology Division demonstrates that this is not just a boring theory. This department had already started to make use of agile work methods in 2017. Divisional Head of Development Dr. Michael Ebenhoch explains why with a wink: “Many of us are getting the sense that the world around us is moving faster and faster. I have the opposite sense: The world will never again move as slowly as it does today.” For him it was and is clear that his employees need to think and work in an agile manner in order to continue down the path of success. With flagship project ETSYS – system software for the 8-speed automatic transmission of the 4th generation – the Development team was able to cut its teeth with agile teamwork. Strictly speaking, the ETSYS team consisted of seven interdisciplinary teams, whose members were also based in different locations and came from other divisions than just the Car Powertrain Technology Division. In the past, this diversity alone might have made cooperation significantly more difficult. Working with agile methods also means dividing the project task into small, manageable steps. At regular checkpoints, the project team reviews the interim results to determine whether the project is still on the right track. This allows development concepts with little chance of success to be identified and halted at a very early stage. “Our work has a clear customer focus, but we are now also able to respond to changing circumstances with a great deal of flexibility and speed thanks to constant communication with and proximity to the customer,” says Development Project Manager Joost Peeters, citing one of the crucial advantages.


“Our work is extremely

Joost Peeters, Development Project Manager
The next generation of the 8-speed automatic transmission: A project team developed this system software using agile methods.

Top organization for promoting innovation

ZF is also breaking new ground in idea management in its Corporate Research and Development department, where the Innovation Factory, a team consisting of about 20 members, has its home. Its mission is to quickly transform innovative project proposals into real-life applications. Starting from a large number of employee ideas for new products, services and business models, those with the potential to be successful in the market are selected in a multistage process. “We’re responsible for the early phase of innovation development. That means we identify new trends, look for innovative start-ups in our strategic technology fields, and are the central point of contact for employees who want to submit an idea,” explains Dr. Eckart von Westerholt, Head of the Innovation Factory. When evaluating an idea, it is vitally important that it creates real economic and technological added value for customers and the company.

Competing for the product of tomorrow

In principle, any employee with an idea can submit an application to the Innovation Factory. To do this, they first fill out a one-page online form. It contains key information, such as a brief description of the customer problem that the idea is intended to solve, why ZF is best suited to implement this idea, the approximate framework in terms of time and budget, and the estimated market potential. Using six defined criteria, the Innovation Factory team then evaluates each project idea and selects the most interesting ones among them. Employees who clear this initial hurdle are assisted by the innovation specialists in preparing for a pitch event. These events take place every two months, and they are an opportunity for four to six idea providers to go before a jury and compete with their project ideas.


“We’re responsible for the early phase of innovation development.”

Dr. Eckart von Westerholt, Head of the Innovation Factory

From idea to initial prototypes at top speed

Each winner – which is usually a team – receives support from the Innovation Factory financially and in terms of manpower in order to develop their idea into a first prototype within three to six months; this model is also known as the minimum viable product (MVP). Once the MVP is complete, the project team presents the results to senior management at a town hall event. If the MVP has the potential for an economically viable application, it goes into volume production development. “Last year, we organized as many as four pitch events and from these launched six innovative MVP projects – two of which were able to successfully transfer to the Group,” says von Westerholt, describing the success.

With the Innovation Factory, ZF is breaking new ground on the search for innovation. Employees also have the opportunity to obtain support for their ideas in the form of funding and manpower.