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Selecting PLM

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Adam Cotgreave served as the project lead during the PLM selection and implementation process at Cornish brand, Seasalt. A recipient of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, Seasalt went to great lengths to identify the right PLM system for their specific needs. In this exclusive article to WhichPLM, originally published in our Annual Review 2014, Adam warns of the pitfalls of an inadequate selection process, as well as the benefits of getting it right.

It almost goes without saying that a PLM project requires you to select a solution, doesn’t it? After all, you can’t very well implement “PLM” in a general sense. You must first pick the product that best fits your needs, choosing from the tens of potential candidates who might have come knocking on your door since you announced your intention to adopt PLM.

But how important is it to undergo a thorough selection process? For many people, the selection can feel like a formality, rather than an integral part of the project itself. Because the project really starts once the contract is signed, the software is in-hand, and the project team convenes around a table to get things underway, right?

You could certainly be forgiven for thinking of that stage as the beginning of the project: team members will be slapping one another on the back, and high-fiving their neighbours, thrilled  to be getting underway with the “real work” now that the trifling matter of actually choosing a solution is out of the way.

Little do they know, the real work should have in fact begun several months prior, with a rigorous selection project informed by potentially years’ worth of preparatory work and introspection. And by assuming that selection was a short exercise (often with a foregone conclusion) this hypothetical team may very easily have made the wrong choice – one that will condemn them to spiralling costs and a product development environment that just isn’t fit for purpose.

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To me, the benefits of undertaking a proper selection project seem obvious, and the costs of not doing so even more apparent. So why is it that so many retailers and brands skip lightly through this vital stage? Why might you, as a prospective customer of PLM, not go the right way about selecting PLM?

The simplest explanations are usually the most obvious. Maybe you just don’t have the time  or the people to set aside, and you need to install a system right away? Maybe your CEO heard that PLM was the latest buzzword, and came home with the mandate that you adopt the solution everyone else is using? Perhaps your team attended a software conference and met a salesman who seemed to understand their pain perfectly, and offered the perfect solution – at a 10% discount to boot?

These suggestions might sound flippant, but they are more likely than I suspect any of us would care to admit. The sad reality is that, whatever the cause, a growing number of PLM systems are selected and implemented before any real analysis is done to ascertain their suitability.

As a PLM project lead myself, I find this unacceptable. As I’m sure you know, consumer demand is growing rapidly, and the modern shoppers’ expectation is perfection. They want products of the highest quality for the best price, and they want them at the touch of a button, original and stylish at the same time. The slightest dip in productivity or the  tiniest slip from trend can be enough to turn consumers away. It’s this constant pressure that can push retailers and brands into making rash choices, but this article will delve into the justifications for taking the time nevertheless to select PLM properly, since the consequences of not doing so can be even more profound.

There are a few analogies I’d like to use to drive the point home, and I’m going to start with one you probably face several times per week. You come home and find yourself hungry; the cupboard is bare, so you decide to visit the supermarket and grab some dinner.

In that instant, you have (consciously or subconsciously) identified a need, and taken steps to obtain a solution. But the odds are that your thought process doesn’t stop there. In this scenario, very few of us would simply reach for the best promotion, or pick up the ingredients the man stood next to us in line happened to be buying. Instead, we would more than likely make some value judgements: how hungry we are; what style of cuisine our palate might be craving; how the nutritional information of a given meal stacks up against  our diet; how the flavours might go with the bottle of wine we have waiting in the fridge at home.

Without necessarily realising it, we have just undertaken a very basic selection process in our personal lives, and arrived at a result that, in all probability, met our needs. So, shouldn’t the same principles come into play at work, when we come to selecting an enterprise solution like a PLM? What steps can we take to make sure that common sense doesn’t get neglected?

First of all, you might consider using an experienced (and unbiased) PLM consultancy to advise you on which solution you should choose. After all, most consultants claim to know essentially all of the systems on the market, so it should be relatively simple for them to identify your needs and point you in the right direction.

We’re certainly on the right track now, but unfortunately choosing a consultant can become a selection project in its own right. Good, third-party consultants will be able to demonstrate their knowledge of the vendors, but without influencing you towards one system or another to suit their own interests. A good advisor will have an ear to the ground and know of any upcoming mergers and acquisitions in the PLM space; they will know which PLM projects failed because of inadequate preparation, and they will know which projects under-delivered against expectations and why.

That being said, your advisors should be just that: advisors. You must trust them implicitly, but you should not be transferring the entire burden of selection onto them because, when all is said and done, the choice is ultimately yours to make.

Why would you not trust an expert advisor to simply reach the conclusion for you? Explaining this brings me to the second of my analogies, drawing another parallel between the kinds of value judgements we make in our personal and professional lives.

Let us pretend, for a moment, that you have been offered a new job in another county or state, and will be required to relocate. Would you trust your mother-in-law to choose your new house, and put down the deposit blind?

No? Why not?

After all, your partner speaks to his or her mother every day, and it’s fair to assume she has as good an understanding as anyone of what you and your family need in a house. And, as luck would have it, she’s also a former  economics professor with some incredibly sound insight into market conditions, resale value and so on – not to mention the obligation you feel since you originally asked for her advice.

In this situation, does it make sense to listen to your mother-in-law’s advice, weigh it against your own understanding, and factor it into your decision? Certainly. As we’ve already said, she knows perfectly well that you require a three bed property with a garden and a garage. She also knows you and your partner both drive, so you’re going to need a suitable driveway. And this is in addition to the house being just the right distance from a good school, and within your budget.

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I’m going to dub these our “high level requirements” – the kinds of factors that are absolutely non-negotiable when it comes to making a final decision. Back in the real world for a moment, it is absolutely vital that both you and your advisors understand these requirements, and that they shape the broad scope of your PLM selection project.

Should we, though, make a large and long-term investment on the basis of high level requirements alone? Do they cover all of our bases, or will something still be missing? And if it is missing, how important is it? So, to return to our analogy, let’s look at what our mother-in-law might not know about buying a house, and how influential those factors might be.

Her understanding of the high level requirements doesn’t extend to knowing, for example, that you and your partner are planning a further grandchild for her in a year’s time, necessitating another bedroom to support your future expansion plans. Similarly, she won’t know (or perhaps won’t admit) that your partner snores incredibly loudly, necessitating a pull-out bed in the study.

When we stop and think, there is actually a potentially endless list of things that she doesn’t know, because they are things that only you can know – and things that must be considered as part of the selection process if you’re to get the best possible return on your investment.

I call these low level requirements, and although snoring typically isn’t a factor in anyone’s PLM decision-making, their analogues are every bit as important as their high level equivalents when it comes to selecting PLM.

I would like to dispel the notion that you will find the “perfect system” for your needs – the same way you’re unlikely to find the perfect house.

Just like our hypothetical relocation, having a strong idea of your own wants and needs as  well as a good understanding of what a “perfect” PLM system would be can allow you to make sensible and considered concessions for the greater good.

Surely it’s better to know, after all, what you are willing to sacrifice in order to make things work ahead of time, rather than suddenly realising your sofa won’t fit through the door, or that your design software does not integrate properly to your chosen solution. My comparisons might be a little tongue-in-cheek, but in both of those cases you barely have a foot in the door and you’re already spending additional money you didn’t budget for.

So when it comes to shortlisting and selecting PLM, understanding exactly what the business requirements are and exactly how the different systems you are looking at can or can’t meet them is fundamental. The gap (or sometimes the chasm) between the two defines is what allows you to understand the degree to which you might be forced to compromise should you select solution A, B or C.

And those compromises can soon start to add up.

They might take the form of a process change, a cultural change or a change of process ownership, or an unexpected investment required to deal with an unforeseen eventuality. Whatever shape they take, these are things you want to manage and control as early as possible in your PLM project, not things you want to blind-side you and send you or an unfortunate nominee running to the Board asking for more time (money), people (money), technology (money), or perhaps just more money.

Hopefully you can begin to see why selection should not just be given equal weight to the rest of the PLM project, but considered part of the project to begin with. Now I want to look briefly at how you might actually approach a more thorough selection.

The first stage of selection is something I call Realisation. The right reason to begin investigating new technologies like PLM is because your teams have identified bottlenecks in their work, or raised issues and concerns with you that you realise – after careful analysis – need to be remedied through investment in technology. At this stage, networking, industry events and publications and a Google search are the typical starting points when it comes to seeking out a new system. Combined with your knowledge of the issues you’ve been made aware of, you should quite quickly arrive at the conclusion as to what system you need to be going for – whether it’s PLM, ERP, an advanced planning solution or any specific best of breed tool.

For our purposes, we’re going to assume you chose PLM, although much of this advice is applicable to any enterprise-level system, and my carefully-crafted analogies are just as valid there, too.

At this stage, depending on the maturity of the business and existing skills/experience, you might decide to bring in some external support – someone who has good knowledge of the type of system in question, as well as how it’s used within your specific industry. Now you want to begin scoping out your high level requirements, and widening that scope where necessary if your chosen solution offers additional benefits than those that were identified in the early stages.

About this time you may wish to start raising awareness at the Board level, preparing them for the investment that may be required, and putting together a business case ready to be deployed in the near future.

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As with any business case, making the argument for PLM adoption requires you to translate the challenges and benefits you’ve already identified into a concrete, scientific return on investment analysis.

I want to return briefly to our house-buying analogy to talk about the solid, quantitative measures that go into an ROI analysis, and the more ineffable ones that must also be factored into your recommendations. For every measurable benefit – reducing the iterations of costly samples, or consolidating data held in thousands of Excel spreadsheets – there will be more strategic, ephemeral things that are much harder to quantify. For example, your investment in PLM might free your designers’ time up and enable greater creativity, or provide your garment technicians with more time to work on quality and fit. The benefits of these metrics will not be immediately or measurably felt, but nevertheless they remain vital to a proper PLM selection because they, along with other high level requirements, will give you the perspective to later determine whether your project was a success – and to what degree.

Assuming your business case, and your new PLM project, is approved by the Board you might think now is the time to approach the market and start asking “which PLM?”

The answer is no. By now you understand your high level requirements and have a budget and a timescale within which to deliver your project, but your understanding of your requirements is still limited to the macro level – the equivalent of allowing your mother-in-law to start approaching estate agents before you’re ready.

You now need to document your existing business processes and begin to truly understand your business requirements, as well as how they differ from others. We hear the phrase ‘standard business practice’ a lot in the IT world, and whilst I understand the principle, I don’t like it – particularly when it comes to something as personal and allencompassing as selecting an enterprise solution. Every business is unique, and it’s that individual identity that separates you from your competitors. The same way you wouldn’t choose to buy the same house as your best friend blind, neither should you assume that the process or product that fit your closest competitor is going to work for you.

I won’t lie, if done properly this phase of your selection process will be painstaking and laborious. You’ll need to assemble a core project team – your best and brightest from each functional area – organise and facilitate multiple process mapping workshops, write up the process flow documents and record the good and the bad in each process. Building bedrock is always going to be arduous work, but it goes without saying that there never was a successful project (or a stable house) built on shaky foundations.

With this meticulously-researched information in-hand, your selection process can then become much more standardised, and begin to benefit from some best practice work pioneered by your peers or advisors. Starting now, you’ll look to develop a request for information (RFI) document, refine your prospective vendor list further, and in turn develop a detailed refer for proposal (RFP). You should take care to ensure that the responses you receive to both are directly applicable to your situation, demonstrating that the vendor in question has given the same amount of care to your project as you have.

Whether you used consultants to help you with your business case and process introspection or not, I would suggest that you’ll need to bring in some external support at this stage. With their unbiased insight, your high level requirements can be used to very quickly cross a number of potential vendors off the list right away.

Experienced consultants will also have comprehensive RFP templates and proven demonstration methodologies that might otherwise take you weeks to develop, and these can help to cut your selection process time down considerably – getting your team to those back-slaps, high fives and “real work” I mentioned earlier on even sooner.

And lest we forget, it’s those team members who will have the greatest insight into what you ought to be doing in the first place. If the point of a thorough selection process is to get beneath the skin of your business and understand what makes it tick (and how it can run more smoothly in the future) then who better to give you the unvarnished truth?

You might not listen to your mother-in-law when it comes time to choose a house, but I’d suggest you pay close attention to the people who live with you, day-in and day-out. You’ll find that with the right methods and the right support, they can help unlock value you’d never even considered.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.