It is no secret that the pace of business has increased and life cycles are compressing. There are so many buzzwords that it is hard to distinguish between some of these new initiatives, especially when we have processes that have the same names and different meanings.

Here's an example: When you use the words “product life cycle management,” what do you think of? What if you hear the acronym “PLM?”

When I use the term product life cycle management, it is used within the context of the strategic and tactical management of products after they've been launched into the market. You know, growth, maturity, decline, and exit…and how you adjust the levers of the marketing mix to optimize the performance of your product. Right?

Think again.

A dramatic shift is taking place in the business of managing products. It's called PLM.

Huh? Yes.

PLM stands for Product Life Cycle Management (some spell it lifecycle, some spell it life cycle). Anyway, the newest approach to PLM involves the use of automated systems and technologies to afford manufacturers (or others with an extensive value or supply chain) the ability to improve development processes and to infuse a more product-focused perspective throughout the business.

Earlier ERP or back-office systems achieved efficiencies throughout the supply chain, but did nothing for the underlying business processes, including the entire new product development cycle (concept, feasibility, definition, development, and launch).

What does this all mean? It means that leveraging the cross-functional team becomes much more important than ever.

The amount of communication and collaborative activity required to be successful will continue to escalate. Team leadership skills will grow as product managers will need to encourage appropriate, efficient, and rapid communication among team members. Project management becomes a more important skill set.

The organizations represented on the cross-functional team, for example, can't just report on progress toward a milestone. All members need to be able to understand the multi-dimensionality of their tasks in working with multiple suppliers and coordinating these providers to achieve their deliveries, lest the market window be missed.

The level of communication and information exchange among development, marketing, sales, the supply chain people, manufacturing, customer service, and quality assurance needs to be extraordinarily tight.

With greater numbers of suppliers, especially those focusing on hardware or components, synchronization on designs and interfaces becomes critical. Disparate supply chains across the field of disparate suppliers makes the job of the cross-functional product team that much more complex--and the need to work together toward the common goal of hitting the window becomes that much more important.

So watch out for new developments in the area of PLM. You'll have these neat, collaborative tools to use--but stay on your toes. The same imperatives remain:

  • Use phase/gate methods to screen concepts and assess feasibility for new products and innovations.
  • Don't let the process constrain you. Be flexible. The rigidity of using a phase/gate process for a line extension may delay a launch.
  • Use business cases to validate the economic outcomes for product alternatives.
  • Make sure management is fully supportive of empowered cross-functional teams as the standard business work structure.
  • Communicate with regular meetings, design reviews, development reviews, etc. All functional team members need to know what they're responsible for and when.
  • Keep your eye on the customer and market during the entire life cycle.
  • If you have design issue doubts, get prototypes done as fast as possible to test the concept and the supply chain.

Certainly, you'll need to make sure you level set on terminology. Make sure you know which PLM someone's talking about. And, yes, there are many new web-based tools on the market for sharing information and enabling collaboration.

The possibility for information sharing across the business will indeed grow. But remember, these new tools are only as good as the people, processes and data that run as an undercurrent throughout the entire product life cycle.

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Steven Haines is the founder and president of Sequent Learning Networks (, a firm providing product management and marketing training and consulting. Reach him at