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Best practices for PLM integration across the enterprise

Beyond the technical challenges, cultural change management is the biggest obstacle to integrating PLM for cross-functional collaboration.

Making product lifecycle management (PLM) an integral part of a company’s R&D process goes beyond point-to-point integration issues. The greater challenge for PLM integration lies with building the culture and creating the cross-functional workflows that can support PLM not just as a software tool but as a discipline for bringing products to market in a timely, cost-effective way.

“If you don’t get the culture right, you can throw tools at this all day long and get more of the same behavior,” said Dr. Michael Grieves, professor of information systems at the University of Iowa, consultant to NASA, and author of the book Product Lifecycle Management: Driving the Next-Generation of Lean Thinking. “You’ve got to emphasize the cultural and change management aspects of PLM.”

With that in mind, here are a few PLM best practices to ensure success:

Know thy process. Understanding the chain of participants and how they respectively accomplish their product-development tasks is crucial to mapping out which data and materials to earmark for the PLM system and establishing the controls that will govern access. Without this keen understanding of people and process, companies run the risk of undermining their PLM implementation by creating a “single version of the truth” for product-related materials, only to have it locked away in yet another technology silo, inaccessible to key players.

Enlist executive sponsorship. Having a high-level business champion is critical to rallying widespread support for the process changes that PLM demands. In small to midsized companies, it can go as high as the CEO, while in larger companies, the heads of engineering and IT typically work together to promote the change management that accompanies PLM. In addition to the business champion, organizations need to enlist support from cross-functional teams that represent the product’s entire lifecycle to ensure thorough integration. That means representation not just from engineering and manufacturing but from purchasing, marketing, even field service and support. “To get more people and groups involved, you need higher-level sponsors --someone with the authority and wherewithal to make changes,” said Monica Schnitger, president of Andover, Mass.-based Schnitger Corp., an analyst firm that specializes in PLM market research. “If it’s someone within the function of design or engineering who spearheads PLM, they can only affect their part of the overall chain.”

Equally important, Schnitger said, is getting buy-in from the ranks. “The top has to push, but the rank and file have to agree this is a good idea,” she said. “They need to understand that PLM will make their jobs easier and them more productive.”

Talk up the value of PLM. Because PLM and process change go hand-in-hand, stakeholders will push back if they don’t see clear benefits from changing the way they work, a process that is often painful. For PLM to take off in an organization, business stakeholders must understand the value the discipline can deliver. Showcasing results and providing solid examples of how PLM can facilitate collaboration and make product development workflows more efficient is crucial. For example, support people are more apt to embrace PLM if they can see clearly that providing their input earlier in the design cycle can result in products that are easier for them to fix. “You need to make people feel the pain of other groups in order to get them to focus on the fact that it’s not just about their particular area of functionality,” Grieves said. “It’s what PLM means across the lifecycle and what it means for the value of the customer.”

Start small and establish metrics. PLM is complex, so don’t try to boil the ocean in one shot. Industry experts recommend starting with discrete projects or small workgroups and building on successes. Be sure to establish metrics that can showcase real results. Most companies don’t like spending money upfront on implementations if they’re not confident of a return. Starting with smaller, targeted PLM implementations that are proven successes will go a long way toward green-lighting approval for rolling out PLM systems and workflows on an enterprise basis.

Don’t underestimate technical integration. Since PLM is a repository for everything product-related, it’s critical that the system connects to other core enterprise platforms such as ERP, MES, and sometimes even CRM. While integrating PLM is no tougher a technical challenge than other enterprise systems, implementers should be clear on which system connections are critical, as well as which data from those systems should flow into the PLM platform. Still, experts say the plumbing aspect of linking up systems isn’t the real hurdle; instead, it’s the business process integration and creating shared workflows that is the real challenge.

Once fully integrated, PLM is well positioned to break down barriers that impede the development and delivery of high-quality products. “PLM is used by companies to break down walls as a way of creating a more collaborative process,” Schnitger said. “The goal of an organization is to build a better product -- it’s not just engineering or manufacturing or purchasing. It’s everyone working together.”

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