PLM Processes, Lists and Implementation Confusion

PLM Processes, Lists and Implementation Confusion

I read the following blog post by Christine Longwell – Do we really need structured workflows if we have visibility and status? In my view, the question asked by Christine can be heard very often from customers trying to decide about PDM or PLM process management.  I specially liked the following passage from Christine’s post:

One of the major objections to implementing a PLM system is that it is going to tie a creative organization into a structured workflow that can slow down their process and ability to react.  If the process is too strictly structured, people start looking for ways around the process when “special situations” arise.  A major deadline, build stoppages on the manufacturing floor, unexpected audits, or irate customers can all be reasons to go around the process and not wait for the standard Friday Morning design review meeting to get designs released.

What if we assume that every design change is driven by a special situation, and allow them to all “flow” naturally?  I believe it’s possible to use tools that facilitate real time, collaborative communication and status on issues to treat each problem differently, and come to the right solution more quickly.

I found very interesting to comparison of two opposite things – structured workflow and real time collaboration. The confusion between them, actually, leads to some implementation difficulties and potentially wrong conclusions about tool selection.

Design Collaboration
Product development has many different stages. On the very early design stage, people can collaborate freely without any special constraints and dependencies. This is a time when “designer” is a king. Designer can make any change. However, if a team of people involved into this processes, they definitely need to collaborate (=work together). So, this type of “design collaboration” can be characterized by a very non-formal relationships and communications. The most widely used tools for such communication is email. I don’t think that email is actually the most optimal way to collaborate, but ease of use and wide spread of emails make it an obvious choice. Managing of the emails can be a difficult task for every person. In addition, email becomes very inefficient when you work with CAD systems. Because of technical constraints, you cannot always use attachments, and it causing losing of context in communications.

Change Processes
When product development moves to the next maturity phases beyond the design, communication between people in the organization becomes more complicated. It, obviously, requires more people to be involved to the processes of changes. At this time, changes are controlled by a group of people and requires some synchronization before any change may occur. It may happen when a product is actually already manufactured or, for example, during the advanced stages of “engineering to order” manufacturing. Such situations require more coordinated work between people in different departments, which normally is going beyond just “raising hands” or “sending emails”. The most often used procedures at this stage are “approval processes”. PDM and PLM systems have an ability to make such implementations.

Processes and Tasks
One of the obvious outcomes of processes and workflow implementations is the need to manage lists of tasks for people. When it comes to “change approval” or “change implementation”, the need to manage tasks becomes critical. The important element of process management is the ability to make tasks visible and transparent in the organization. It includes task assignment, task distribution, follow up and changes. A good process or workflow tool needs to provide ways to accomplish that. User interface is an important element in the process implementation story. As a user, I need to have my tasks to show up. List views are one of the most obvious ways to do so. That’s why, Microsoft Excel becomes popular. However, the ease of list creation in Excel is combined with a complicated way to maintain collaborative changes, assignments and follow up. Microsoft SharePoint with Excel Services provided an interesting approach to manage Excel lists. Other alternatives can include “work management” or “task management” tools. Lists are still a very important element of user interface there.

People and Processes
The most complicated element in all process implementations are people. To capture processes is not a trivial task. Processes can be undefined, fuzzy and even conflicting. Process Management, normally, cannot solve problems related to the process capturing and organization. The flexibility of tools is an important factor here. However, even with a full flexibility, this process can go wrong.

What is my conclusion? The requirements can be different depends on a type of communication. Design team can collaborate via phone, email or Excel spreadsheets. When it comes to more complicated communication, process management and workflow tools need to be involved. However, ad-hoc collaboration, structured workflow and even a very sophisticated processes management tool, can use a simple list-based user interface concept to communicate with users and provide task visibility. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

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  • Vuuch

    Even if an ECO is being processed using a workflow most of the work done by people in the processing and decision making is unstructured. The workflow only manages the nodes / signatures. For example if I need to determine a strategy to use up the inventory we have… the process of doing this is not managed by the workflow, nor is the implementation of the use up strategy. Workflow cannot make decisions, people make decisions.

  • beyondplm

    Chris, you are right! People are making decisions. Workflow can only apply some business rules about “who” need to make a decision or “who” need to be involved. In addition, workflow creates a record of what decision was made and when. In configuration management, there is a term called “formal control”. This is a point of time in a product development every change needs to be recorded. I think, it is reasonable to use workflow / process management tools for such a type of activities. Of course, if you are dealing with a team of engineers working together, the collaboration between them can be less formal and may follow “discussion” principles rather than “formal workflow/business process”. Just my thoughts.. Best, Oleg

  • Oleg,

    your emphasize on task management is interesting. I share your opinion. Good task management is the foundation of everything else, especialy the orchestration of tasks according to rules and relationships. People do it every day, using post-its (I hava always a few sticking in front of in my desk), using features of their calendar systems, or as part of an enterprise systems like ERP or PDM.

    When an how much predetermined workflow in product development? As much as it helps in a certain situation. The difficult part it to interpret the word “help”. Engineers rarely find compliance requirements helpful …

  • beyondplm

    Roland, thanks for your comment. Predetermined workflow is an interesting issue. I can see people want it with the ability to make it as flexible as possible on every step. In general, I can see it good to implement rules. However, it should balance cost/flexibility/ease of use. Best, Oleg

  • Yes, you need structured workflows! I believe having a structured workflow is crucial for delivering deliverables on time. You should use some sort of specialized project management software like http://www.elementool.com or some other something else. Most PM’s software also automate your workflow, which is nice.

  • beyondplm

    Michael, thanks for your comments and links sharing. I think, the key point is how to balance structured and unstructured workflow for greater efficiency. What is your view? Best, Oleg

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