In their first guest article for WhichPLM, Manner Solutions explores the value of PLM for small businesses; Michael S. Robinson and Amy Hockenbrock share their thoughts on where to begin, the challenges, and how to overcome them. Manner Solutions provides clients with strategic business process efficiencies, database applications, and specialized change management counsel for apparel businesses.
As small business proprietors, we recognize that owners wear multiple hats. In some cases, they are driving design, managing production, and are involved in sales, marketing, and various other business needs. Typically, there is a lean bench strength for execution, and with the increased demands of digital speed-to-market there is no time to waste on validating and harmonizing information to understand sample arrivals, product deliveries, approved design specs, costing, projections etc. Making matters worse, are the added business challenges of working during various cycles of multiple seasons (fall, resort, spring, and summer), all on the same day.
Furthermore, in today’s digital environment, we are all challenged with data, data, and data. No matter the size of your business, its type or focus, there is data to manage. In fashion, we see businesses, big or small, too often using Access, Excel or web-based applications (i.e., Smartsheets) as the only means to manage information. Time and time again, the product development process (cradle to grave) is administered in Excel or, as one client put it, “Excel hell.” Individuals and teams can easily get lost in multiple versions and have a hard time authenticating information and understanding the state of their product development cycle.
As fashion companies quickly move to keep with the pace of “fast retailing,” consumers’ styles and shopping preferences, technology for design and product development sometimes are put on the back burner while the business solves the consumer interfacing needs. At the end of the day, however, the product drives the consumer, and style management is critical. Identifying this need is your first step, yet it may feel overwhelming thinking about how to weave all this data together; where does one start?
Implementing operational change, including new processes, roles and responsibilities, and emerging technologies is challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. Executives are concerned about the financial commitment, designers are concerned about the limitations on the creative process, talent is concerned about change management, and production is concerned it will all end up on their laps! Also, of course, the finance team is looking for a positive ROI. Each area has its own business interests, but this is not to say that their concerns or problems do not overlap and, certainly, impact one another.
However, we are seeing savvy small- to-mid sized apparel companies that recognize how they will benefit shifting teams out of manual, one-off processes and introducing them to technologies and cloud-based solutions that operationalize the workflow. Business and teams develop new workflows, applications, and integrated systems to address their use and management of data to have a true, real-time understanding of their business.
Over the years, we have seen large and established fashion companies overhaul legacy systems or start from scratch to operationalize manual processes. They kicked off major “transformation programs” designed to normalize (speaking a common language) and establish a dynamic (real-time) ecosystem for global collaboration, real-time knowledge sharing, and ideation. These institutions face the complexity of large teams, legacy systems, massive amounts of data, complex business models, business politics, agendas, and multiple stakeholders. Although, it’s exhausting to think about all these factors before it even begins. However, many mature businesses realize data management, enterprise software for production, finance, talent, and assets are mission-critical to moving ahead in this fast and ever-changing business.
If it is this complex and challenging for mid-to-large apparel businesses, imagine the implications for a startup or a small fashion company. There are numerous challenges, and the financial impact appears to be the biggest hurdle. But with SaaS (software as a service) model pricing, companies are getting high-value software at a lower fixed cost and removing the risk of custom development or large IT projects; because the business model is simpler, data and teams are smaller, and there is a real opportunity to plan for scale and sustainability.
It may feel ambitious, but trust us when we say that it will be easier to address issues with smaller amounts of data and limited applications, agendas, and user resistance as teams are compact. Moreover, there is a generation that is eager to embrace emerging technologies and knows the benefits they can bring. We see young professionals questioning the use of Excel or Access for data and project management. We watch them start new jobs in product development and production and ask to introduce Smartsheet or Google Docs as a tool to manage products or the lifecycle calendar. They may introduce Drop Box as a platform to manage files and image assets. Each is an upgrade and a good means to introduce business efficiencies, but they still lead to the “silo effect.” We have all experienced this with information that is typically arranged and managed by key individuals, so knowledge-sharing across divisions and transfer of information to new hires is limited.
Why should you listen to us?
Our perspective (of the need for clean metadata and knowledge sharing across divisions) is based on our careers at Ralph Lauren and other luxury designers. Having worked in the trenches of amazing brands from their early stages, we’ve seen the quick growth spurts and areas of road blocks when systems or processes are not streamlined. Recently, we started worked with smaller design businesses (< 20) working in RTW, footwear, and accessories. We see these teams facing several manual touchpoints to facilitate the product development process. For instance, after the prep of the Tech Packs, the production team typically copies the pertinent details of the style into ANOTHER Excel file to create a “Style Line Sheet.” From there, Sales/Merch recreates the wheel with “Sales Line Sheets” for its channels of business. Further, the style number, descriptions, fabrications, sketch, deliver, material content, and other data would be repurposed for each of these reports, along with downstream departments, when it reaches Marketing and ECom, etc. What happens when the Tech Pack changes (as we know it will)? Multiple data sources will need to be updated, and for a small team, or even a large one, keeping multiple sources up to date with the same information is time-consuming and prone to error as data is transferred from one file to another. Does that sound familiar?
If it does, there are solutions to manage product lifecycle processes. Type “PLM solutions for apparel” in Google, and you get a list of PLM software solutions. We estimate there are 40 to 50 competitors in the market place with SaaS (service as a software) pricing models. There are options that will align with your business size, focus, and markets. However, how do you know if you are selecting the right solution? Use user adoptions and actionable information to manage your business. Based on our work with helping highly creative companies identify, invest, and embed PLM solutions, we recommend the following considerations:
- Application and new workflows need to complement the creative process, not limit it
- User interfaces are intuitive and easy to learn for users
- Implementation cannot disrupt business
- Technology and support are affordable, friendly, and knowledgeable
We once heard someone say that Project Lifecycle Management is a methodology more than a software application – in fact, WhichPLM might be the very source here. To us, it is about people, processes, normalized data, and the Internet, and how these elements help teams work smarter, faster, and friendlier across the world in real time.
Complementing the Creative Process
Over the years, we have worked with a variety of design teams – big and small. Some teams lead the brand, and other teams support merchandising to drive the business. They all have their unique approaches, but one thing is clear: when the conversation about a PLM system begins, there is concern, hesitation, and, in some cases, fear about the future state. For instance, while working with a small design team to implement a PLM system, the first thing the head designer and lead merchant said was that their experience with previous PLM systems (at different companies) was a disaster and “torturous.” Can you relate? Here we were, trying to help get the teams to work smarter and faster and give them more time for design, and their reaction was negative. Their eyes were rolling, and the first layers of the “Wall of Resistance” were set.
So, if this team is a critical part of the product development process, how do you get them engaged? How do you alleviate their concerns that a PLM solution will stifle the creative process? The answer is to learn and understand their workflow and include them in the selection process. Spend time with them and understand THEIR reality. Ask curious questions and discuss them: How do they use sketches? How do they reference past collections? Are they interested in sell-through? How do they use Adobe Illustrator, etc.?
Your investment in learning their process and including it in the dialogue will pay off. Product development is not easy. It’s complicated, emotional, and time-consuming. It starts with inspiration, and the design team begins the process and soon collaborates with other teams to determine how to actualize its ideas. No matter the business size or type, there is some form of process. It may not be formalized, but there is a systematic way to bring new products and collections to the market. From our experience, the product development cycle begins with ideation, sourcing, costing, samples, editing, market, sales, production, marketing, distribution, selling, and archiving. Within this workflow, there are multiple processes and tasks happening, bringing ideas to life, and the garment, handbag, shoe, etc., is then put into the hands of customers and consumers. Typically, this all starts with the designers and their teams. Take the time to understand the design process and invite them into the selection process. This will build trust and investment in the future state, leading to use and adoption.
Intuitive User Interface
A significant benefit of implementing a PLM solution is its ability to help create and administer a common language through normalized data. A data schema needs to be established and usually begins within the design department. The Style Line Sheet is a critical tool for the product development process, and it’s not just a report used by the design and production department. It may originate with these groups, but most other business units create custom views. Sales need it for marketing. Marketing needs it for advertising and line lists for editorial credits. Retail needs it for product knowledge. The needs go on, and all these views are unique to each group. When the Style Line sheet is a manual process, we see the team taking a report created by the design department, and then each group drops and adds columns for information relevant to their business process. However, what happens when the style information changes? A style drops or design adds a new fabrication – all these unique views need to be updated. A daunting and time-consuming task is validating data and these manual outputs. A dynamic reporting vehicle fueled by a normalized style master is life-changing for a business of any size.
Do not select a system based on a limited view. There are some real benefits to engaging users in the selection process; a cross-section of the organization is ideal. PLM affects everyone, including small teams. Ask teams for their perspectives and needs and then evaluate the options against their feedback (larger companies should do the same). One consideration that will be at the top of your mind is ease of use. Besides the financial investment, users will give you time and information on how to manage the process, and rewarding them and keeping them engaged means to give them access to that information. Assess your team’s reports and determine what can be automated. See if your PLM selection will address these reporting habits. While an application’s standard reports will replace some of the general inquiries and outputs, consider evaluating your business needs and a system’s ability to provide custom reports. As noted earlier, many different teams have different needs around the Style Line sheet, and a PLM application will normalize a lot of the data they crave. Consider a platform that will allow for customer views and controls around viewing and editing. You will know that your implementation is a success when teams are using the application and when it is the single source of truth around product development.
Change is not easy. For a small team, time is limited, and you do not want to disrupt the business process to implement a PLM solution. Assuming that you have engaged the stakeholders in a business or your small team is aware and is part of the selection process, have them help you develop the deployment schedule. Involve them in identifying the right time to introduce a new functionality and to cut over to the PLM system. There should be a development calendar with which the team can work, and a good calendar will show the overlaps of several seasons so you can isolate times for the implementation of certain functionalities and workflow and then for the introduction of the next phase. Look for the “quick wins” and the “low hanging fruit” that will lighten the load for the users, and go after it. You want to keep teams excited and willing to make the change for the future state, so be sure that they are engaged with the planning rollout and training schedule. Don’t boil the ocean and try to cut an entire season over. You might start with the style master for the current season to help with line reports. Then, introduce more functionalities or modules to handle Calendar Management, Tech Packs, Costing, and POs in the next season. The next phase of implementation could involve grading, sample tracking, and more advanced activities like global work in progress reporting. You may be a year out, but if there are successes and user ownership, the team’s improved productivity and knowledge sharing should lead to more adoption.
Early adopters will become your most powerful change agents. Recently, we worked with a lean design team. We provided recommendations for data taxonomy and business requirements that we had found to be fundamental to clean metadata and scalable growth. Understanding the different teams’ needs and providing direction on how to tag data will help the teams understand their common goals and help bring them away from the “silo” effect, which may focus only on the needs of their immediate areas. Additionally, engage the team with their voices, and play an active role in making minor enhancements to the interface to complement their creative process. Quickly, you will find the design teams go from being resistant to being advocates for change. A recent client was under huge pressure due to deadlines, and at one point, there was pushback from tech about the timing for PLM deliverables. It was the design team that led the conversation as it helped demonstrate the benefits of its process and why tech needed to get on board. Bringing continuity and ease of use and information to users has great results.
Affordable Technology and Support
As emerging technologies continue to offer flexibility with open APIs (application programming interfaces) and SaaS pricing, PLM applications are more accessible for small businesses. Take time to determine your requirements for a PLM application. There are affordable solutions out there, but be sure they will complement your workflow and not lead to another silo of information. You can start small, and as your company grows, you can move up to the more robust system. If you are in Smartsheet, you have historical data that could be ingested into a platform and provide a baseline for normalizing data and creating a starting point for archiving key styles and details on best sellers and sell-through on colorways, silhouettes, bodies, and fabrications.
As you assess the marketplace, interview providers to evaluate their knowledge of your business process and willingness to work through the implementation and cutover. You want more than an application. You want a tool and business methodology that will help you improve your process and grow and stretch your talent. You want a partnership that will offer business advisors and technical support to ensure that teams are using the application to its full potential. You want advice on how to maximize your investment and best engage the team and ensure acceptance and adoption.
If you leverage the SaaS model, understand who owns the data and how is it being managed and secured, as well as understand ownership and what happens if you decide to cancel your subscription, how do you get your data and visual assets back? What happens if the system goes down? What’s their backup plan? Is it an open or closed platform? Most are open, but you do not want to be surprised when your vendor tells you that it cannot pass your data on to another application. These are all easy questions to get answered, and most of this information will be acknowledged during the assessment phase.
In our experience, there is no magic solution, and we do not believe in a one-size-fits-all application. Product development is complex, and there are several pieces of data that may require a variety of systems to manage it. However, don’t get overwhelmed by the possibilities. Look for tools that will help automate part of the process and give you actionable information. Invest in systems that are open, which means they can connect with other systems, and as you grow, you can determine the best ones to integrate and enhance the real-time view of your business. You may want to connect your PLM system to push POs over to your distribution center or connect to the distribution center’s system through an API feed to track inventory levels. There are several options, but none of these are viable if you are still working in Excel.
We are the first to admit we are obsessed with helping teams work smarter, faster, and friendlier. We know firsthand the burden of manual workflows and the frustration of spending lots of time piecing together dispersed information to tell a story on the business. Excel and manual processes are not going to cut it in today’s competitive landscape. Take the time to explore the options and move from the manual processes of Excel and non-automated systems that cause disruption in this day of rapid change. Speed to market, consumer tastes and shopping habits, and investors’ demands are critical to companies both big and small, and no one has time to waste validating information and shifting through files to get an accurate read of a business. Competitive advantages are operationalized workflow, global collaboration, normalized data, and dynamic reporting, which are all available to businesses that take the time to invest in a PLM tool and methodology.