PLM and Simplification 

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci.

PLM is complex – the paradigm, definition, implementation, technology. Simplification of PLM is the discussion topic among PLM industry people and pundits. I can see it as a reflection of a broader “simplification trend” that came from consumer product, internet and mobile devices. In my view, this is one of the most interesting  trends these days. The promise of the technology is to simplify our life. Is it always true? Is it something that we are looking for?  Do we really need simple PLM?

Enterprise systems seem to be the last holdout against simplification. The feeling on the ground seems to be that if a user has to sue the system, then it fact how complex or simple the system is irrelevant. At the same time, I found an interesting data point – over 70% of enterprise projects fail because of lack of user acceptance.

The premise of PLM systems is to solve business problem. This is where core value proposition is targeted. However, without wide scale adoption and acceptance it can be an impossible mission to achieve. The unwillingness of engineers to use PLM software is significant. The traditional approach used by PLM systems is to provide training and handhold everyone in an organization to help them to get used to PLM idea. But listen… who wants to get trained to use a very complex system you don’t like in general?

First simplify, then automate

I remember one of the conversations that happened to me during the sales meeting with customers. I was “impressed” by a try of a sales person to convince a potential buyer by saying “Don’t underestimate the complexity of things we can manage”. I found it very remarkable, and it took me long time to drive my conclusion about PLM sales. The fundamental assumption of PLM sales is that manufacturing world is very complicated. So, we need a really complex system to manage this manufacturing world. This is a point where many enterprise software systems and developers went wrong.

Here is one of the lessons I learned many years ago. If you have a mess, don’t try to automate it. You can end up with automated mess. Not sure this is how you want your PLM system to be. First think how to simplify it. Then try to automate it.

People are looking for simple tools

After Apple huge success, people got crazy about simplification. Finally, everybody wants to simplify everything. Vendors are crying to simplify portfolios, developers are crying to simplify user experience, etc. But to get things done in a simple way is sometimes scary. People are afraid to give up on something. Remember, in the past we developed “options” when we didn’t know what feature our customers really need.

I’ve been reading an interesting writeup about simplification – Simplicity: Fewer steps and Fewer options? by John Evans. I found the following passage the most important to me:

I asked engineers what they thought about simplification of their favorite software. The response was unanimous. “I like the idea, but what would I have to give up? I mean if I had to give up some of the tools that I use everyday, that would probably be a deal killer.”

These days, PLM buzzwords are one of the main sources of complexity. It doesn’t mean the idea of Product lifecycle management is a bad one. But at the same time, it makes people feel complex. My recommendation to future PLM developers is to drop PLM word from every possible elements of your software. It will be a step in a right direction. The question of what to give up is the most important when it comes to product development and PLM. Since, we are not talking about mobile phone, digital camera and even not automobile, the question of giving up features is probably less relevant. In my view, it is all about perception and how things can be visible to end users and developers. It made me think about two aspects – visibility of features and perception of complexity.

We like features. Remember old Windows toolbar era with zillion buttons and options? Still, many UIs of older enterprise systems have the same disease. How many of them are you using on daily basis? Not much. Think about MS World? How many of features in this application are you using? The second issue is related to connectivity of tools and information. PLM software is heavily rooted to engineering world. Therefore to show complexity was important. Engineers like engineering toys and these toys need to be complex and powerful. However, when it comes to users in a whole company, the same “visible features and options” become a showstoppers to mass adoptions.

So, what to give up? I think PLM needs to give up on visible complexity. Don’t take me wrong and don’t get back to “Out-of-the-box PLM” circa 2000s. We need flexible and powerful software. However, we need to figure out how to make it simple and usable for 80% of users that needs it on everyday basis. This is where the science of nice user experience will come into the play.

PLM simplification – back to basics

We will see more signs of simplification in the world of software for product lifecycle management, manufacturing and engineering. It all starts from the interest of people to simplify the world around them. Drop complicated acronyms and go beyond PLM with simple words – BOM, Change, Part, etc. When this goal is achieved, we will more a clearer picture of what new PLM software need to do.

Simple products are easy to market

It is much easy to deal with simple products when it comes to sale and marketing. Andrew Chen article –Simple is beautiful can give a good perspective why marketing for simple is always better.

Furthermore, your customers don’t like being confused. If a product is simple, it will typically be intuitive. And that’s always a desirable quality. Chen further adds that having a simple approach benefits the company too. When your product is simple, it’s much easier to optimize and pivot, thus allowing for rapid changes and meaningful improvements.

Simplicity is hard, but it worth investment

Speak to investors and they will tell that investment in “simplification” is worth the effort. Navigate to old (but very good) article by Larry Cheng – Simplicity is hard.

For every consumer or mass market company I have invested in – there has been one consistent product management theme: simplicity.  While many competitors try to build in more capabilities, more functionality, more content, more, more, more – the winners tend to be incredibly skilled at keeping things very simple.  It plays itself out again and again, you don’t have to be first to market, nor the most full featured, not even the most attractive – you just have to be the simplest.

“Simple and easy to use” PLM system?

For the last few years, PLM vendors came with the mission to provide “simple and easy to use PLM systems”. It is a confirmation PLM industry is following the simplification trend. And the same time, I think simplification trend raised a lot of skepticism and controversy in PLM industry. The benefits of “simple PLM” are not clear.  You can hear voices to defend a seriousness of PLM systems and significant business value. A lot to be said by consulting and service companies that potentially can lose their value proposition of hand-holders  during PLM implement. But even before – is it possible at all to develop a simple system to solve complex manufacturing problems?

John Gall’s law

In my view John Gall’s law is applicable to the development of PLM systems. I recently read – Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail. It is a systems engineering treatise by John Gall in which he offers practical principles of systems design based on experience and anecdotes.

Gall’s Law states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. – John Gall (1975, p.71)

This law is essentially an argument in favor of under specification: it can be used to explain the success of systems like the World Wide Web and Blogosphere, which grew from simple to complex systems incrementally, and the failure of systems like CORBA, which began with complex specifications. Gall’s Law has strong affinities to the practice of agile software development.[8]

The demand for simple PLM

I think the demand for “simple PLM” is a red-herring. Engineering and manufacturing is a large system with a many problems and high level of complexity. The real question is how to build a system and technology that can help people to resolve engineering and manufacturing problems. Can we build a complex system from scratch that can solve all problems? Is it possible to implement PLM system using big bang approach? Many PLM systems were built with complexity in mind targeting the most complicated use cases and scenarios, trying to solve all problems together. It failed in so many situations, so it requires re-thiking.

Simple PLM: Fad or Future? 

I think blunt marketing of “simple PLM” should go away. It won’t solve the problem of PLM differentiations. Simple PLM is great for PLM spoof videos made by Jim Brown – actually I like these videos very much (!). But, in a real life, the demand for simple PLM should be transformed into two things:

  • agile development principles of PLM systems and implementation;
  • user experience design and UI improvements.

By following these principles we have a chance to transform existing systems. More importantly, this is the only way to develop new  systems to solve problems of manufacturing companies in the world.

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