The PLM Trail

PLMTrailProduct Lifecycle Management (PLM) is a journey.  PLM is not magic dust that you sprinkle over a business to provide instant results; rather it’s a transformation over time.  Wait, you’ve heard this before?  Today’s perspective is not about why PLM is a journey – you’ll find pervasive wisdom on that front from many of the thought leaders in the arena like Jos Voskuil, Jim McKinney, or pretty much every consulting organization on this planet.  Instead, the present exploration is about precisely what kind of journey PLM may be characterized as.  It’s often a little too easy to romanticize the PLM journey, with teams of consultants, architects, and stakeholders running across the beach in a wonderful Chariots of Fire moment with the sun and requirements at their backs, and a Vangelis data model crescendo in the background.  What a glorious thing.  But in fact, PLM is a journey fraught with mortal danger, and that’s kind of a problem.

I have a thought.  PLM is indeed a journey, but not with the convenience of a road trip to the Grand Canyon, or a flight to Tokyo, or even a multiple-day backpacking journey in the Canadian Rockies.  You see, all of those journeys can be made with relatively little planning, and have minimal susceptibility to unlucky turns of events.  PLM is more like a trip to the Death Star in a rusted piece of junk with the intention to put a torpedo through an impossibly tiny hole.  PLM ain’t like dusting crops, boy.

If PLM was a trail, it would be exactly like Oregon Trail (the game).  Some of you may or may not recall Oregon Trail, made famous in school computer labs in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.  It was a rather sadistic little educational game, designed to communicate the hardship that American pioneers faced as they trekked across the west.  A lesson the game version delivered almost too well: while the true historical death toll for pioneers was something on the order of 4 to 6 percent, the simulation was often far more brutal.  You would be presented with many difficult choices along the long journey, and if you didn’t plan precisely so, that journey would end badly.  Badly meaning no survivors.  Sometimes even despite meticulous preparation, just one particular turn of events would ruin your day, and your entire wagon train was quite notably hosed.  It was an impossibly long journey with potential for disaster at just about every turn.  Sound familiar?

A bitter truth is despite a great variety of available software and platform options, and a healthy supply of PLM expertise of all types, many PLM journeys end in abject failure.  A recent article on, highlights this in no uncertain terms:

“In their effort to improve PLM capabilities, executives often invest large amounts of money in modern PLM software with the promise of significant returns. Arthur D. Little’s experience is, however, that most PLM initiatives fail. This is not due to a lack of capabilities in the software but is rather an effect of how the PLM projects are scoped and implemented. The consequences are not inconsequential, often leading to the loss of tens of millions of euros in sunk cost and resulting in the termination of staff and serious effects on critical business processes.”

There’s definitely a problem or two here.  In Oregon Trail, measuring out just the right amount of supplies before and during the journey was absolutely central to success.  You had to have provisions prepared ahead of time.  Wagon.  Check.  Bullets.  Check.  Canned Beans Check.  Ox Check.  Spare Wheel.  Wait, forgot!  Oh sorry YOU’RE DEAD.  Planning for PLM has similar criticality.  Those involved must have a complete, cross-functional holistic view of the enterprise.  It’s not surprising that project teams who are neither prophets nor magicians get at least one or two details wrong.  Or, if particularly unlucky, many details wrong.  Oh sorry YOU’RE DEAD.  My prediction is that someone with a deep consulting background will jump in and exclaim that’s precisely why you need consultants.  Consultants might make better guesses, depending on the relevancy of their experience,  but they are also neither prophets nor magicians.

One might argue that the infuriating random events injected into Oregon Trail that made it so unforgivable have no direct equivalent in PLM implementation.  After all what’s the PLM equivalent of Cholera, or a broken wagon wheel, or running out of bullets?  Actually, the parallels are quite vivid.  Losing a key member of the team to another opportunity?  Might as well have been Cholera.  What do you mean the integration has an effectivity bug?  Shades of a busted wagon wheel.  Organizational change has shifted funding?  Sounds like running out of bullets.  The key here is the PLM journey is too fragile considering the investment of time, manpower, and cash.

Back to the point on losing a key member: successful PLM implementations depend too heavily on genuine heroes – with just short of the Marvel-demanded cape.  These champions are typically keepers of the vision – the imaginary destination at the end of the journey.  The consequences when champions are taken out of the loop voluntarily or involuntarily are often quite dramatic.  And this can and does happen whether the champions are internal or external to the business.  And if you lose your key people, just like in Oregon Trail it’s Game Over, man.

The nice thing about Oregon Trail the game is you could always try again.  That was part of the appeal – convincing yourself that next time, you’ll get it just right and make it to the promised lands.  And you could restart as often as you like.  Learning through failure and experimentation.  In PLM, no such models exist – be prepared to insert 10 million dollars to continue.

The larger lesson is this: pioneers traveled all the way to Oregon through much pain and suffering because they had little choice.  It didn’t stay that way, and something called technology and progress transformed the very character of the journey.  Today, we just go online, book a flight, and complain that the trip takes a whole 3 hours while playing Angry Birds on a tablet, sipping Ginger Ale, and writing ridiculous blogs about PLM.

You see the point here?  Where is the PLM equivalent of the airline flight?   We’re still riding wagons through the wilderness.  More troubling is the fact that many insist that the journey must be accomplished riding in wagons across the wilderness, because that’s the only way to customize your experience and transform the business.  As long as you have an expert wagoneering consultant, you’ll be spectacularly successful.  It’s a thoughtful, but ridiculous notion.  Flying is safer and more convenient for all.

Yes, your solution architect has died of dysentery.  What are you going to do now?  The natives are about to shoot your wagon to pieces.  How long will the data migration take?  Hopefully you have a magician in the back of the wagon.  Tell me about your journey.