How can we make PLM simpler?

plm cloud

Two weeks ago, my blogging peer Jos Voskuil published a blog entitled “Why PLM will never be simple”.

If users want quick, easy, and painless – that is, if users want “simple” – why shouldn’t PLM also be simple?

We’d all love to make PLM simpler, but how? Jos’ post inspired me to share how I think we all can make PLM simpler.

1) It all starts with a simple vision.

Much like a company’s vision, a PLM initiative should have a consistent, clear vision that is easy for everyone to understand and rally around. And it all starts by formulating this vision in a statement that clearly expresses what your PLM initiative aims to achieve.

Think of the PLM vision statement as a 30-second pitch that sums up the initiative’s purpose and critical targets. Drop the corporate-speak, and choose a down-to-earth message.

Here are some good examples of guiding visions statements for sound PLM initiatives:

To enable full lifecycle traceability for the factory of the future, making sure we know the origin of parts and ensuring they remain traceable.“ – Renault

To provide business & people with 3DEXPERIENCE universes to imagine sustainable innovations capable of harmonizing products, nature and life” – Dassault Systems

To make End to End data accessible for realistic car visualization, ensuring that the complete visualization data with geometry, material definition, equipment, appearance and variation is centrally available for all downstream processes” – Mercedes Benz Cars

With a clear vision, it is much easier to brand your initiative, communicate what needs to be done across your organization, and find the right technology solutions to support the vision.

But letting a vision guide your team requires a lot of communication. Painting a clear picture of what you want to achieve, explaining why it’s important, and building a movement around it spurs people to action.

2) A bit of marketing.

Yes, a bit of marketing can help PLM as well. And building a brand that connects with people on an emotional level for your PLM initiative is actually an excellent idea. People who feel emotionally connected to your initiative’s brand will have a better experience using your PDM system, because they’ll be more willing to forgive small usability hiccups.

It’s important to encourage people to change by making the outlook for the results of that change tangible and realistic. Sharing case studies from other departments, companies or clients that have achieved something similar is a great way to make it real. Sometimes an actual, real-world inside story about the aspired-for state of the business can also lead people to visualize the change.

Whether you’d like people to actually use the PDM system, follow the product development process or get excited about the renewed document-management functionality, a PLM internal marketing strategy can help you build awareness and thrive. When done well, a marketing strategy can spell the difference between resistance and success.

3) A less-complex PLM system architecture.

The rise of cloud computing and open APIs is changing the game for traditional PLM architectures. Even if traditional PLM vendors have historically shied away from flexible open architectures, we’re seeing a positive change towards more flexible applications that can cope with the connected world we live in.

Monolithic PLM systems are incapable of managing today’s product collaboration. These locked-in legacy systems don’t integrate well with each other, and they often become a barrier to the fast and smooth information flow that modern businesses demand.

A platform approach – using open standards, APIs and microservices to streamline integrations between the systems that manage product data – is the way to go.

And often complexity is a side effect of not making decisions. Too often, companies engaging in mergers and acquisitions end up having bunch of systems doing the same thing. They are unable to “kill” any of them and, over the years, things get complex. I’m working with several SMEs that have six different mCADs, and multiple environments for the same mCAD. Imagine how many distinct integrations they need to consolidate their product data!

A slow or poorly handled system integration between merging companies can greatly complicate your PLM system landscape. To keep your PLM architecture simple, you need to be brave and make the tough decisions.

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4) A well-designed User Experience.

Boring light-blue screens from the ’80s, thousands of new windows opening with every click, cryptic error messages, slow performance and sudden application crashes are day-to-day realities in the PLM world.

UX stands for User Experience. User Experience design focuses on the optimization of an application to make it easy to use, effective and enjoyable. User Interface (UI) design refers to the look and feel of an application. Both elements are crucial to an application and work closely together.

User experience design isn’t just about how the application looks, but rather about how it works. It’s not just about picking colours and designing beautiful graphics, but rather about making it easy for the user to do their job.

A well-designed User Interface is a very powerful way to make a PDM system simple, clear, bright and user-centered, and thus improve the user experience.

Most PLM vendors try to keep their solutions generic, and don’t provide specific out-of-the-box solutions for different industries. Vendors try to take into account so many use cases that simplifying the main structure of the PDM application itself seems impossible.

The result is an overwhelming number of choices and options. Specialization sidesteps complexity by providing industry-specific workflows, terminology and data models.

Some companies start to patch the UX holes with their own development on top of the out-of-the-box systems, and often end up making it worse by trying to make it better.

However, I believe things are changing for better. Several PLM vendors are working on developing modern user interfaces, and cloud providers are taking steps towards toward nimbler and industry-specific PLM.

If your company is still stuck in legacy PDM systems and wants to improve the UX, you might consider working on a modern web portal that consolidates product data, provides visibility into your product’s lifecycle and facilitates information searches. Web portals are a great way to improve the user experience, generate engagement, and deliver on the PLM value promise.

5) Better training and support.

Regardless of how well defined your PLM methodology is, someone is always going to need help.

There’s no way around this. People get lost even when the concepts are clear and the applications to manage data are well designed. Not having a way for your users to reach out and get help creates frustration and helplessness. Having a support team working together to help users can actually make the difference and create an amazing user experience.

Being close to your people will also help you realize where the issues are. When you see users get stuck, think of it as an opportunity to improve your concepts, processes and applications.

It’s easy to blame technology – but in the end, the key to success is people.

Most PLM initiatives fail because people don’t understand the project’s “why” and the “how”. That’s why one of the first things you should do when planning your PLM initiative is to define a learning strategy. Every PLM implementation is different, so the concepts and processes always need to be defined and structured in a way that’s easy to grasp.

The lack of a common vocabulary is often a key obstacle to empowering that understanding. MBSE, MBE, Digital twin… we get confused about those terms, too! If you’ve been in the PLM world for a while, you already know this issue affects us all. Make sure you compile a glossary and work on educating the people involved in your initiative to use only the words you’ve defined in your glossary.

Making PLM feel more simple.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

Simple is good. But simple isn’t easy!

Still, there are some great examples of businesses that managed to make it “feel simple”.

Think Google. If I want to find out why PLM isn’t easy, I go to Google, type in my question, click search and boom! I get lots of ideas.

Think Amazon. After choosing which credit card and address you want to use, you can click a single button, then sit back and wait for your stuff to show up at your door.

Amazon and Google cut through the clutter with a simple and enjoyable user experience. That doesn’t mean those businesses aren’t complex under the hood, but they’ve managed to make it feel simple for the customer.

But making things seem simple involves being brave, making decisions and having difficult conversations.

And simplicity involves transparency. This, in my opinion, is the main reason why PLM can feel so complex.

How many of your companies have well-defined products with prices on the website? To my consultant peers: how many of you are open about what you offer and how much it costs? To the vendors: where can I find a single PLM solution provider who’s open about their pricing?

This is a mentality shift, but we all should strive for transparency. This is where the world is going. Everything feels much simpler when we’re transparent.

By being transparent and simplifying the user experience side of PLM, we can make it feel simple. Even when things under the hood are complex. When concepts and processes are clear and applications are well designed, sharing and supporting one another gets much easier and the barriers to collaboration start to crumble.

Design Sprint: where creativity meets capability.

plm design

Let’s face it, working remotely is great. Especially because of everything it usually allows: flexibility of schedule and work method, total freedom to decide where you want to live, a better family and home life… However, those of us who have been transforming our home into our office for some time, know that as with everything in life, nothing is perfect.

One of the things we miss most about our daily routine is probably the direct contact with our workmates. Though it’s true that every day there are more tools that bring us closer to our team (video conferences, chat, email…), there’s nothing that beats daily physical contact. Therefore, in Share PLM we do our best to get together at least once every three months. We choose a city (usually where someone from the team lives) and spend a few days taking part in co-working, team building activities and having a beer or two. These days are always a success and we go back home with our batteries recharged and our heads full of new ideas.

On this occasion, our Team Meeting took place at the end of January in the city of Frankfurt, with Helena hosting. We dedicated the first day of co-working completely to the team. First, we spent some time taking part in a few ice breaking activities, which always help us to let go and make the environment more relaxed. Then we had the opportunity to talk about our most important daily tasks and their future evolution. And finally, we shared anecdotes of our routine that helped us understand each other’s daily realities. The result? It was a very useful and productive day!

Helena and Bea had warned us that the second day of the Team Meeting would be a surprise, so we had no idea what we would be doing. We made bets of all kinds with each other and were truly eager to find out what they had prepared for us. The truth is that as a team we are forward planners and like to know the details of what we are going to do together in advance. However, this time it was different. What would they have prepared for us?

The Design Sprint experience.

When we arrived at the co-working session they told us that we would be dedicating the day to a Design Sprint, I have to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. It was the first time in my life I had heard those words and of course I didn’t know what the methodology consisted of. There was no time to waste so we immediately got down to work to discover exactly what a Design Sprint was and what we could get out of it.

It’s true that we didn’t have the 3 days minimum that they recommend to carry out the process (ideally 5 days), and we had to condense everything into one veeery intense day. However, this time was enough to give us a tangible idea of the power of this tool. Want to know what a Design Sprint is? Let’s get to it!

What are we talking about when we talk about Design Sprint.

Firstly we should make one thing clear. The Design Sprint is a methodology developed by Google Ventures and made popular by Jake Knapp, author of the book ‘Sprint’. In it he explains the method for resolving problems and testing new ideas in just 5 days.

What does it consist of?

Basically in 5 days (or less) we need to be able to come up with an idea, design it and implement it. In order to do this, we help ourselves out by following a strict time schedule as well as methods based on Design Thinking.

The final objective of the Design Sprint is to generate innovative solutions that add real value to existing problems or needs. To be more specific, I will give the practical case that we faced as an example.

The sector of e-Learning training in which our activity is framed is continuously evolving. The rapid advance of new technologies makes it essential to maintain an open-minded attitude to all the demands of the market. And not only that, it is our obligation to study and understand those demands and then transform them into extraordinary services that solve real problems.

With this in mind, we have recently detected what could be a future need for our customers: the adaptation of Virtual Reality to our packages or PLM training courses. The sense of interacting in a real way with a system will probably accelerate the learning processes, making them more easily memorable. That’s why in our Design Sprint we experimented with a fundamental initial component: VR glasses.

In our case, the whole process was developed based on the idea of using Virtual Reality to train PLM and therefore, our goal was the launch of a product that would integrate this technology and be easily sellable.

Phases of the Design Sprint.

1. Map Day.

The first stage encompasses the first day of the process. In it, the main objective is to gain context and define the real problem. For this it is very important to identify the consumer and ensure that all stakeholders are aligned to the same objective and have the same information. In short, it is about generating the map to follow during the rest of the days.

In our particular case, the first stage helped us identify our target audience and what their experience with virtual reality was. To reach our conclusion we used techniques in which through empathy, we put ourselves in our client’s shoes. Specifically, we realised the importance of good listening when we have a conversation. In the following exercise, each person had to adapt a role (client or salesperson) and carry out the following instructions:

What conclusions did we arrive at?

Many times, we lose focus of what our client is telling us because we only have one thing in mind: the sale. We do not realise that our business potential is precisely in the words of our client.

In the second part of the exercise we could see how in many cases there was a big loss of information between what the client said, and what the salesperson took in.

Another exercise that gave us great perspective to generate the map was the use of fictitious interviews. In this case we repeated the roles of client-salesperson, but this time it was the salesperson who had to carry out a very thorough questionnaire on the client to analyse their needs. The rest of the team would act as listeners to later give feedback to their peers.

2. Sketch Day.

Once the problem is identified and our target audience recognised, it is time to discover how to solve it. The sketch phase is the most creative of all, and basically consists of exploring the multiple ways of solving the problem. In this stage, there is total freedom to be creative and no idea is discounted as bad, everything goes.

To make our Sketch phase more fun, we took a large sheet of paper and each member of our team had to draw 8 ideas that occurred to them to find a solution to our problem (all in record time!). The result was a lot of creative ideas and in some cases some crazy ones, but none were received with indifference. Thanks to this exercise we were able to later develop the idea that seemed most appropriate in phase 3.

In the following video you can see our colleague Jeni explaining her ideas to the rest of the team:

3. Decide Day.

In this phase the objective is very clear: to decide which of the ideas discussed on the sketch day is the best and which ones we ought to abandon. For this, it is necessary to follow a process in which we can assess the viability of our ideas one by one and why we should continue, or not continue, with them.

4. Prototype Day.

Probably the hardest day of the whole process. Day 4 is when action needs to be taken. It is time to get down to work with the creation of a prototype that can be tested by the target we have defined in phase 1. We must remember that the main objective of this phase is not another one to be tested, therefore it is essential that we build something based on this condition.

Something that is very useful for generating the prototype quickly is to divide the team and assign specific tasks. In addition to having this ready, on this day the interview that we are going to do on the users the next day has to be worked on.

5. Test Day.

During the fifth and final stage we have to validate our idea and discover any errors in the concept design. To carry this out we need to do tests with real users that are framed in our target. Subsequently, we must interview them to learn from their experience of use and expectations.

At the end of the day, the team will meet again to reflect among themselves what has been the main learning process and thus determine the next steps to follow. In our case, in having to concentrate 5 intense days into just 8 hours, the stages of the prototype and the test were merely theoretical. Even so, this introduction to Design Spring opened the doors to a very powerful tool that we gained great knowledge from. We hope to expand this knowledge even more during the next team meeting.

And you? Have you already tried this methodology? Tell us your opinions in the comments.

See you!