The hard things about simple PLM

The hard things about simple PLM


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?

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?

PLM vendors came with the mission to provide “simple and easy to use PLM systems”. To me it is a confirmation to the fact PLM 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.

What is my conclusion? 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: 1/ agile development principles of PLM systems and implementation; 2/ 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. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


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