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Book Review: Product Lifecycle Management
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Book Review: Product Lifecycle Management by Michael Grieves

Product Lifecycle Management: Driving the Next Generation of Lean Thinking

Written by: Michael Grieves. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 319+xiii pages.
Reviewed by: Greg Githens

Product Lifecycle Management

In this book, Michael Grieves describes the emerging practice of product life-cycle management (PLM). PLM has shown benefits in the aerospace and automotive industries as an efficiency-promoting paradigm for complex, manufactured products. It is now being adopted in other industries including industrial goods, consumer packaged goods, and pharmaceuticals.

The book's 11 chapters unfold in a logical manner. The first five chapters explain PLM and its context. The reader will learn the advantages PLM offers, its major components, and why organizations should consider adopting it. Chapters 6–8 cover activities from the beginning to end of a product's life cycle from design until it is out the factory door. Chapters 9–11 address organizational adoption of PLM by considering short- and long-term costs and benefits, organizational readiness for PLM, and issues that must be addressed for PLM to reach its full potential.

Grieves evaluates several definitions of PLM and arrives at this: “PLM is an integrated, information-driven approach comprised of people, processes/practices, and technology to all aspects of a product's life, from its design through manufacture, deployment and maintenance—culminating in the product's removal from service and final disposal. By trading product information for wasted time, energy, and material across the entire organization and into the supply chain, PLM drives the next generation of lean thinking” (p. 39). Curiously, he does not consider marketing-oriented definitions such as the one in the PDMA glossary: “Changing the features and benefits of the product, elements of the marketing mix, and manufacturing operations over time to maximize the profits obtainable from the product over its lifecycle” (PDMA, 2006). This absence of a marketing view of PLM is a minor defect, as my surfing of the Web shows that entries describe PLM as a technology and process that is more consistent with Grieve's definition. Given the number of vendors and offerings, it appears that there is much money to be made in providing PLM solutions, and solution providers have a natural prejudice in defining the PLM in terms of information technology.

PLM's major benefit is improving the efficiency of the design, manufacture, support, and ultimate disposal of a product by creating and managing a virtual representation of a physical product. The rationale is replacing “expensive physical atoms” with “inexpensive information bits” (p. 2). The practical question for day-to-day implementation of PLM is this: Does the information presented in a given virtual representation have fidelity with respect to the physical item it represents? To assess these virtual representations, the author proposes several criteria. First, the “Grieves Visual Test” (pp. 18–19): If an observer observing the object on a video cannot tell the difference between a physical object and a virtual one, it passes. A second test, the “Grieves Performance Test” (p. 19), is more demanding. The observer can manipulate and test the object, and if the observer cannot tell difference on the video between the physical object and the virtual representation it passes. Manipulating an object in a computer provides opportunities to improve speed, to reduce waste, and to increase flexibility.

The start of the digital life cycle of PLM is collaborative product development, “an approach to capturing, organizing, coordinating, and/or controlling all aspects of product development information, including functional requirements, geometry, specification, characteristics, and manufacturing process in order to provide a common, shared view as product requirements are translated into a tangible product and to create a repository of product information to be used throughout the product lifecycle” (p. 161). Grieves states that PLM's potentially greatest value is in capturing and managing product information after the product leaves the factor door. He provides examples in quality scrap production (e.g., a product that fails in use even though it meets the specification); product liability; warranty; quality improvement; usability; new revenue sources including product extensions; and services, repair, recycling, and disposal.

I found the first half of the book more insightful than the second half, but someone who was implementing PLM might better like the second half. I particularly liked Grieves's framework for characterizing work as processes, practices, and art (pp. 20–5). Grieves says that “the hallmark of a process is that it can be fully scripted or coded” (p. 20). A process is a conversion of “well-defined inputs” that deterministically produces “specific consistent outputs” (ibid.). Contrasted with mechanistic nature of process, art is an individual, fuzzy work endeavor, and Grieves cites large complex sales and advertising campaigns and some forms of casting and grinding as examples of more artistic processes. Often people cannot fully explain their activities, judgments, and objectives. Such individuals work in the realm of tacit knowledge of the technology and the organization and thus make subjective determinations of how well the outputs match the desired goals of the system. Because of many managers' discomfort with the fuzziness, organizations invest considerable resources to convert art to more rational, predictable work routines. Practice straddles the space between process and art. Grieves writes, “With practices, inputs are pretty well defined, as are the outputs” (p. 21). What is not well defined is the amount of “judgment and experience of past actions that go into the outputs” (ibid.). Whereas processes are reasonably controlled, practices cannot be appropriately understood without understanding the context in which decision takes place. The distinction between process and practice is important because managers blame inconsistent performance on processes. Grieves writes, “When we talk about practices, we usually want them to be processes, because processes are much neater and better defined than practices” (p. 22). However, the problem is that managers are misguidedly trying to automate a practice. Grieves prescribes a strategy of moving “practices to processes by making tacit information explicit” (p. 24). Accomplishing this frees up people to concentrate on practices, where they can uniquely consider the context and can apply their judgment. Finally, organizations should use PLM to “enable and facilitate practices to make them more productive” by presenting “the right information when it is needed” (pp. 24–5). If managers can absorb and apply this distinction, they have gained an important insight for improving product development and management.

Overall, this book convinces me that the product development and management is now getting the tools to move closer to the ideal of holistic management of products. PLM has promise to make tremendous impact on the operations and the strategies of organizations, especially those involving complex, manufactured products. However, it will require a substantial investment and run into many of the same obstacles as other cross-functional, enterprise-wide change efforts. This book makes a thoughtful contribution to the literature and deserves a place on the bookshelf.

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