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www.PLM – Why, When and Which PLM?

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In this new article, exclusive to WhichPLM, Brion Carroll II examines the thorny questions that plague retailers, brands and manufacturers when they begin to analyse their need for PLM.  The pressing doubts and even-more-pressing needs that drive them to ask: Why?  When?  Which PLM? 

featured image2The title of this article plays on a few different elements. First, the motivating technology of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), and its ushering in of a new age in product development – moving us from behind restrictive firewalls to a cloud-based, mobile, external share point accessible by designers and vendors alike and underpinning the work of many of the world’s leading brands. Secondly, my title plays on the unfinished Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which the technologically-minded amongst you will notice is missing an appendix to specify the host location. This is because, as of 2013 and despite its proven use across the globe, we really do not yet have a firm understanding of just where PLM’s capabilities end. Finally, my title follows on from both of the preceding points and reinforces the intention of this article, to look at ‘Why, When, and Which PLM’ – helping newcomers and old hands alike to better understand the history of our industry.

Before we begin, it’s important to realise that when I speak of PLM for the purposes of this article, I’m referring to PLM solutions specifically designed to cater for the retail, footwear and apparel markets – a fast-growing industry worth an estimated $400 million in 2013.  PLM has its roots in the automotive and aerospace industries, but made the transition to fashion around the turn of the century.

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So, first of all, ‘what’ is PLM, in the sense that we refer to it within the fashion industry? PLM, at its core, is an ideology (and supporting software solution) that manages the transitional states of a product through from its conception to its release, or sometimes even its rebirth. This is a simplistic view, since the product lifecycle encompasses a great deal of product information and people-centric tasks that collaborate together to achieve the end result – a product fit for market, designed, manufactured and priced accordingly. These processes are agnostic to applications or tools, but generally speaking most modern retailers and brands deploy technology to a greater or lesser degree to achieve their shared goals. This is where product lifecycle management (PLM) technology comes into play, helping those same retailers and brands to achieve inter-departmental harmony and coexistence, and ensuring so far as it is possible that products are created efficiently.

It’s that trademark efficiency that continues to lead retailers, brand and manufacturers in their droves to ask the questions that headline this article: why, when, and which PLM?  Many of the companies I have interacted with in my role as PLM consultant have very strategic and effective ways of developing and maintaining their product lines, but, from their own investigations and from whispers passed down the industry grapevine, many of them also recognise that there is a better way.

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This is usually where the topic of PLM enters the discussion, although despite having heard the stories of cost savings, and heard rumours of potential gains and process improvements, many of these brands are still unsure what, precisely, PLM is.  This is often complicated by the fact that they may already have a Product Data Management (PDM) solution in place, and confusion abounds about how the two compare.  Although PDM birthed PLM, it does not necessarily follow that every organisation understands the order of succession, and so the next logical question – once the topic of PLM has been raised – is usually “why should we adopt PLM?”.

Unfortunately for the peace of mind of those asking the question, “why PLM?” doesn’t have a clear cut, universal answer. The reasons for turning to PLM are as unique as the businesses who give rise to them, beyond the desire to take advantage of some of the core capabilities that PLM boasts above and beyond those offered by PDM.

There are several metrics (including WhichPLM) by which PLM solutions themselves are evaluated, and businesses in the situation we’re considering (with a desire to adopt PLM, but a limited understanding of why) can be forgiven for often simply choosing the highest-rated amongst them.  Or, if times are hard, the most competitively-priced.

And yet, a given company’s reasons for adopting PLM may render either the most capable or the cheapest solution a poor choice, and it’s vital to remember that “not yet” can be a valid answer to the question of “why PLM?”

My goal with this article is not to prove to anyone the effective return on a PLM investment, since this is often subjective.  In fact, despite my status as a PLM evangelist, I do not always recommend PLM to companies, especially if they aren’t able to adequately answer the question of why they might seek to adopt it in the first place.  Indeed, getting a business to conduct this sort of introspection can be a worthwhile end goal in and of itself, since due diligence and personal inventory are never wasted efforts.

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Even though each of the businesses I’ve worked with – as I mentioned earlier – has had a detailed understanding of their own product development processes, it often takes the prompting of an outside party to get them to take a step back and begin to analyse their reasons for turning to PLM.

By way of example of just some of the previously hidden aspects of product development that have come to light in previous projects: redundant efforts throughout departments; missing revision or iteration histories; an inability to reference past information; a lack of standardised processes for design or development, with each person working at their own pace and performing an external task that is time dependent, and that ultimately hinges on no single set of master data – no accepted version of the truth. These are just a few examples and are by no means typical of every potential PLM project, but an idea of the kind of introspection required in these scenarios can at least spark discussion, and galvanise the process of examining activities like material management, merchandising, design, technical design and sourcing to discover whether or not one or more of these areas presents a worthwhile business case for adopting PLM.

In one of my experiences, I had approached a company that wanted to investigate PLM because of the sunsetting of a legacy application. This was a very good reason to investigate (although it did not exempt the business in question from the kind of introspection I mentioned above), but logic suggested that the existing application was being retired since it failed to fulfil at least some needs within the business. After some careful analysis, we were able to determine why the other application fell short in terms of functionality, and this gave us an effective checklist for the future.

Only once the “why?” is addressed does it make sense to begin contemplating the “when” – specifically how soon is it desirable and feasible to actually implement a PLM solution?

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The general answer – and not always delivered tongue-in-cheek – is “yesterday”, since the challenges that galvanized the business to turn to PLM in the first place will only have become more pressing in the intervening period.  This is obviously unrealistic, but nevertheless I have seen companies take the ‘Big Bang’ approach and try to do everything all at once, when the best approach lies in setting obtainable milestones that will take you from the initial stages of development onwards – through seasonal release efforts based on materials, styles or brands.

Another key consideration is the impact a project of this scope will have on your work force; a technical designer facing a learning curve (or worse, duplication of their efforts) will be less productive during the transitional phase, for example, and the impact of this and similar effects to the workforce will be felt at all levels of the business.  To try and mitigate these difficulties, a standard process should be agreed with each department, with tasks and dependencies governed by a rigorously-maintained calendar.

I was once tasked with overseeing a PLM implementation where we asked to, in no uncertain terms, “hit the ground running”.  To try and meet that goal, I suggested that I be allowed to meet with each internal division to coordinate development and user acceptance testing, only to find that virtually everybody was tied up in production release efforts.  And, since user acceptance, training and change management are so vital to success, we found ourselves swapping running shoes for walking boots.

By slowing down, we found ourselves able to give better consideration to functional requirements, tying these more closely into the needs of the individual departments and creating a better PLM experience for all.

Any assessment of when to implement PLM must also take account of master data.  Without a thorough analysis of how data is stored, changed, modified, consolidated and reported upon, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the fuel that actually permits any PLM project to run at all – let alone to hit the ground running.  By conducting a thorough introspection along these lines, a company can start to “live” PLM before they even purchase a solution – at the same time preparing themselves as thoroughly as possible for their implementation.

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And, needless to say, a better understanding of core data principles enables far more accurate estimations of the timeframe for delivery.  Case in point: I was involved in the technical design of a PLM to ERP integration, and by better understanding the scope, role, and the ebb and flow of business-critical data, we were able to develop seasonal reporting triggers that eventually became the cornerstones of Business Intelligence (BI) throughout the organisation.

So, with the “why” and the “when” of PLM addressed, we come to the question that’s also the namesake of this very website: which PLM?  You may be surprised to learn – considering my role as a PLM project manager – that sometimes the answer is “none”.  It is possible for some retailers and brands to improve their data management and collaboration with customers, suppliers, and across the enterprise with sound investments in CRM, SCM, SDLC and ERP systems, without necessarily incorporating PLM until these other pieces of the puzzle are in place.  This can be achieved by interfacing, business processing modelling laws, and role-based tasks, which may collectively serve as a short to mid-term solution for businesses that may believe they need PLM (and need it now) but would in fact be better served by taking strong preliminary steps rather than jumping into PLM unprepared.

Assuming that the retailer or brand in question can confidently demonstrate that PLM is the solution for them, the question of which system to adopt (a choice between more than fifty different vendors) is usually driven by the specific challenges the business is facing.

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Chief amongst these will usually be the disconnected nature of their existing product development processes: system capabilities and data may be handled in multi-version spreadsheets or disconnected data warehouses, and seasonal deadlines may be getting missed – all while designers, technicians and sourcing managers are working around the clock to keep things going.  This is a difficult scenario to see, but one I encounter all too frequently, and the one that most often sends the retailer or brand scrambling for PLM in the first place.

But although one of the core competencies of PLM is the ability to aid collaboration between previously disconnected teams, geographies and systems, there is still no magic PLM bullet that can solve all of a business’s common and unique challenges in one fell swoop.  As a result, making a PLM selection on the basis of just your most immediate challenges (particularly where those challenges are common to other business in our industry) can sometimes be counter-productive, since it fails to take account of longer-term realities and does little justice to the broader business perspective.

In the initial stages of PLM selection, I generally recommend that customers identify what they can already achieve – process wise – with what they currently have, and then identify what is unattainable without adopting a new solution.  This approach can be very humbling, as it helps to shake businesses out of a mindset where they believe that simply choosing the right software will solve all of their most pressing problems, but struggle to think any further ahead.

In doing this it becomes possible to highlight the truly business-critical areas for improvement over a several-year term, rather than adhering to a scribbled list of things that simply must be fixed right away.  Those highlights then become the building blocks of your shopping list when the time comes to meet your potential vendors head on!

To help round out your highlights into a more complete set of shortlisting criteria, there are many selection criteria documents available – some freely distributed and some proprietary.  These can help in the requirement-analysis activities undertaken by potential end users in various roles within your company. Regardless of the capability of modern PLM solutions, even the best still require proper administration and modular thinking in order to deliver on their potential results.

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More often than not, I work with customers to assemble a set of questions that will help to ascertain two crucial things about any PLM vendors: their understanding of the software itself, and their experience of the retail, apparel, footwear and consumer goods industries.  The same questionnaire can be supplemented by further questions that examine the financial stability and long-term roadmap of the vendor, as well as the finer points of differentiation between their solution and others.

Lastly, I encourage customers to assemble an initial costing model (incorporating number of users, solution cost, server location, remote storage, maintenance cost etc.) which allows them to better understand the implications of answering in the affirmative to why, when, and which PLM!  I place cost last to reflect my belief that it should not be the primary deciding factor.  I do not believe that any company should “check out” a low-cost PLM solution, or that they should compromise in order to deliver a cheaper and less competent version of what they need.

The only real way to answer the important questions with which this article concerns itself (as well as any others that arise from the consideration of PLM) are to think, think some more, and think again.  In my work I approach each PLM project as though it will set new standards for capability, delivery, execution and return, since I know that each and every business – whether they feel pressured to fix things right away, or have the luxury of approaching things slowly – feels the same way about their products.

Answering the questions of why, when, and which PLM can (and in all likelihood will) be difficult, but any business truly committed to surmounting their long-term challenges will find it more than worthwhile.

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Brion Carroll II has over 17 years’ experience implementing, project managing, and working with PLM and PLM applications. He now works as a Principal, heading up the Retail and Consumer Goods segment for PLM at Intelaphase.

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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.

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