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"Access Commerce is an international provider of Multichannel
Selling and Configurator Software that simplify the sale of complex and configurable products
Source: Access Commerce
Top Ten Risks to a Configuration Project and How to Avoid Them
is also known as :
Product Modeling Effort
Configurable Product Models,
Product Families Models,
Project Management Software Configurable Product,
Project Management Configurable Product,
Project Management Process Configurable Product,
Project Management Model Configurable Product,
Enterprise Project Software Configurable Product,
Project Management Processes Configurable Product,
Project Management Online Configurable Product,
Project Management Courses Configurable Product,
Project Management Tools Free Configurable Product,
Web Based Project Management Configurable Product,
Free Project Software Configurable Product,
Project Management Books Configurable Product,
Project Management Course Configurable Product.
- Starting on the Right Track
- Developing Effective Configurable Product Models
- Staying on the Right Track
- The Author
- Notes and References
- About Access Commerce ..
Companies producing and selling complex and configured products can achieve a
major competitive edge by successfully implementing product configurator
software as the core element of a configurability strategy - "to provide more
product variations using less resources." (1)
Some companies, unfortunately, have painfully experienced the risks of
implementing new software and processes, though eventually gaining benefits.
Other companies may be overly cautious. They can be hesitant to undertake
"another new initiative," even when it is essential to compete in today's
The promised benefits from implementing product configuration software are
many and may seem too good to be true. However, companies that have successfully
implemented a configuration project confirm its many rewards. Surveys by
industry research firms further validate these claims. (2)
Purpose of this Executive Guide
The purpose of this Executive Guide is to help companies gain the intended
benefits from implementing a configurability strategy, by: Identifying the top
ten risks to a successful product configuration implementation project, and
Describing numerous, proven actions to avoid or to mitigate them. Although this
guide presents the indispensable actions to avoid these risks in a general
sequence, a different sequence and/or emphasis may be appropriate for any
individual company situation.
Implementing new configuration software and processes is similar in several
respects to implementing other information technology (IT) based projects, such
as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or
product lifecycle management (PLM)
systems. A few of these similarities include the strategic nature of the
project; its broad scope - encompassing the extended enterprise of customers and
suppliers; the extensive cultural implications; and the necessity for formal
change management methods.
Nevertheless, in developing a feasible plan to implement configuration
software and processes, there are some significant differences to consider. For
instance, ERP / PLM product definition capabilities are limited in their
flexibility to create highly configurable product representations for use by
customers to create unique products. This is because those systems focus on
engineering and manufacturing versions of product structures. Typically, their
current product structuring methods are grossly inadequate to meet sales and
marketing requirements for unique and accurate configurations - developed in a
timely and cost effective manner.
By creatively using configurator software, project teams now will have the
capabilities and flexibility to define product options and variations in any way
deemed necessary - for an effective customer-facing Lead-to-Order (LTO) process.
(3) The implication is clear: To become more customer oriented by offering
highly configurable products, a company will need to dramatically shift its
perspective on how its products are defined and presented to the marketplace.
As with most IT-based system projects, to gain the considerable rewards may
invite numerous risks. Thus, it takes prudent management to recognize these
risks and to develop viable actions to avoid or to mitigate them - by learning
from and taking advantage of the successful experience of others
The Spectrum of To Order Products
Pick-to-Order (PTO) - products usually shipped
from stock inventory, for example, catalog items with optional accessories
shipped with the catalog item.
Assemble-to-Order (ATO) - products with standard
sets of predefined features and options, from which unique product
configurations are developed by the customer selecting specific features and
options, for example, computers ordered over the Internet.
Configure-to-Order (CTO) - products based on
consultative dialogue with the customer, through Web interface, to address
specific requirements. The products have been predesigned in
computer-aided-design (CAD) models or parameterized
documents, but not predefined with specific part numbers, for example, products
with dimensional and spatial requirements, such as hydraulic actuators, and
windows and doors.
Engineer-to-Order (ETO) the most complex
products that during configuring must interface with product development
activities and tools, such as CAD software, design rules and other expert IT
systems that can support development of configuration, pricing, and complete
documentation over a typically iterative proposal cycle; for example, electrical
Starting on the Right Track
Risk Number 1: Not Managing the Implementation as a Strategic Project
If the company does not address this risk directly in the first stages, the
result could be complete project failure - after spending the implementation
budget fruitlessly. Wide industry experience has clearly demonstrated that the
most common cause of this risk is because the organization does not fully
understand the strategic nature and value of the proposed configuration project.
Strategic, in this sense, means a project at the highest level of planning
and execution, fully endorsed and supported by top management to catalyze major
improvements in the company's competitive posture.
Action: Develop a solid business case with a
Return on Investment (ROI) analysis to
gain management's initial commitment; sustain it by quickly showing results and
keeping management informed of ongoing progress and challenges.
A complete ROI analysis has proven essential to gain management commitment.
It should identify tangible objectives and benefits, one-time implementation
costs and all ongoing costs of IT support.
First, as planning assumptions for developing the benefits side of the ROI
equation, the company's strategic vision may need to be defined or clarified;
for instance, will the company:
- Target new market sectors?
- Initiate new sales channels and processes?
Some project teams might contend that intangible benefits alone offer
sufficient justification to undertake a configuration project. For management,
with an ROI focus, intangible benefits lack the power to sustain commitment over
an extended period. For the users, however, the soft benefits can be a powerful
motivator; for example, engineers may be very frustrated with the time consuming
problems of developing one-time bills of material (BOMs) that dilute valuable
engineering time for innovative product development. (2)
Once the project team gains management commitment, the attitude might be
"thank heavens, we have management's support, now let's get on with the real
Nurturing and retaining management commitment is a real job and will be a
continuing challenge. It must be a top priority of the project team to
accomplish this by using formal project management techniques. These include:
consistent status reporting, means to identify and resolve outstanding project
issues, and a comprehensive communications approach. Project management software
can only provide a partial solution.
In addition, the project team must seriously consider the value of an early
success, such as a "rapid prototype," to sustain enthusiasm for achieving the
project's intended benefits. In a similar vein, another viable approach is
the tactic of "self funding" later stages of an implementation through the
benefits gained from its initial successes.
Risk Number 2: Not Having the
"Right" People on the Project
Without the "right" people on the project
team, two major risks will almost certainly appear:
- The configurable
product model will not meet the requirements of all organizational functions,
including customers and suppliers
- The eventual users may not fully accept the
newly developed configurable product models and the supporting processes
The critical question is, therefore, who are the "right" people?
the required makeup of the project team: multi-disciplined with in-depth
product knowledgeable people - and led by the business and not by IT
"Right" is . . . those product experts that are integral to the
current day-to-day operations and who supposedly "cannot be spared." These
people have the expertise and perspective to design product models that meet
the needs of the enterprise. Clearly, providing personnel who "cannot be
spared" depends on the strength of management's commitment to the
Furthermore, project leadership should be in the hands
of those responsible for the future, on-going operation of the system - the
sales, marketing and/or engineering personnel.
To bring together and forge
an effective project team, the qualifications and capabilities of the "right"
prospective team members must be evaluated:
- Will they be willing
- Will they be able to stay motivated in the face of occasional
setbacks during the progress of the project?
- Will they resist being
distracted by their "real" jobs?
- Can they function effectively at two
different thought levels: conceptual and the detail of product modeling?
- Can they make decisions to facilitate conflict resolution?
Action: Define the "right" tasks for the "right" people to accomplish
the project's objectives.
The project team's prime responsibilities are to
develop a feasible project budget and schedule, paying special attention to
the product modeling effort; and to design, test and implement configurable
product models and related processes that meet the company's strategic
vision. Moreover, acting as proactive change agents and maintaining open,
two-way communications with the rest of the organization are particularly
important with respect to the cultural risks, described next.
Risk Number 3:
Not Fully Understanding the Cultural Issues
Experienced companies frequently
refer to cultural risks as one of the foremost reasons for project failures.
Technical reasons have rarely been the cause.
The risks here are often
subtle; like an iceberg. The obvious, formal policies and processes exist
above the waterline. Beneath it may be the informal - attitudes, values,
norms and fears - that endanger the project. For example, a company may have
relied on a certain department and/or individual to know the subtleties of
generating a customer's unique product configuration. Thus, these users may
perceive a change in roles and responsibilities - using the new configurability
processes - as a loss of status and power.
Action: Clearly identify the
cultural issues that might endanger the project.
A fundamental truism here
is that management commitment, by itself, does not solve cultural resistance
to accepting new processes. Accordingly, the project team cannot be passive,
hoping that time will cure the resistance risks, or that momentum will sweep
along any dissenters. It will take a proactive approach by the project team
to gain user acceptance of new processes and responsibilities.
In fact, the
project team must relentlessly work to eliminate any potential organizational
potholes and landmines that can undermine expected project benefits.
- Maintain constant contact with all affected users through
both formal communication means and informal methods
- Conduct orientation
and educational sessions, perhaps some conducted by outsiders who can bring
fresh perspective to the effort
- Hire a change management consultant versed
and experienced in cultural issues and how to resolve them
constructive conflict as a healthy situation and destructive conflict as
Developing Effective Configurable Product Models
Risk Number 4: Not Completing a Valid Product Model and Process Design
An attitude of "let's get on with the solution, we all know the problems" can
lead to undesirable risks in the early phases of the project. It is a natural
posture: some project teams may be too eager to start playing with the new
software before they initiate a purposeful design process. This is a
dangerous attitude that could lead to false starts and costly project course
If the project team does not have a clear focus on project
objectives, other risks can surface during the remaining phases of the
- Incomplete model and process design
- Rework of processes required
later in the project
- Heavy reliance on people's memory and tribal knowledge
- Personnel turnover
- Politics gain the upper hand resulting in individual or
functional needs becoming more important than the overall enterprise needs
Action: Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Current State methods
and processes related to the configurability strategy; then develop the desired
Current State review
Selectivity is essential -
too much documented detail is not necessary. The Current State of product
variability, such as available options and combinations, however, does
deserve a high degree of attention and detail. Understanding the current
demographics will help to accurately estimate and to facilitate the product
modeling effort, for instance, the number of features, the logic controlling
the relationships, and the interoperability of options. Structured design
methodologies that use visual aids are useful here. Moreover, the project
team should recognize informal sources of product information, for example,
Post-it notes and tribal knowledge.
Additionally, the company must avoid the
myth of "We have to make our current systems work first." Time is too
valuable to waste trying to improve poor systems on a piecemeal basis.
Companies can avoid this risk by developing and following the strategic
direction provided by a Future State design.
Future State design
of this action is to create a comprehensive design for product models and
processes. To accomplish this:
- Identify the metrics of configurability
success, for instance, the accuracy of configured quotes and orders
the affected processes at a general objectives and policies level only;
procedural detail can come later
- Clarify planning assumptions that influence
or constrain the design to avoid the painful hindsight, "Oh, but I thought .
- Make use of a comprehensive design methodology to avoid missteps Draw
on best practice checklists as prompters
- Recognize factors that should be
resolved before a Configurator can be fully used, for example, an effective
product change management process
- Share the evolving design continuously with
management and users and solicit feedback before final approval
noted action is one of the best-known tactics to determine if the design is
complete - not stopping short at the 80% completion state.
The overall design
of the Future State processes and the user experience with them must be
intuitive and perceived as a natural part of their interaction, not an added
burden to be endured. In addition, there are critical considerations in
developing valid product families and models, described in the next section.
Risk Number 5: Not Attaining the "Right" Perspective when Designing Product
Families and Models
One of the key tasks awaiting the project team is to
develop a fresh perspective on the definition of product families and models
by taking advantage of the capabilities in the configurator software. Gaining
perspective means to abstract or visualize new groupings of product families
and models to achieve more effective configuring of complex, unique products.
Often, though, Current State engineering and manufacturing product structures
do not lend themselves to accurate and timely configuring of products in a
revitalized LTO process.
Failing to address the concepts of the "right"
perspective may result in unusable configurable product models and these
undesirable consequences - at two levels:
- Operational unduly complex,
time consuming and costly on-going model revision and maintenance, and
- Strategic eroding the customer's confidence, and even losing business, if the
customers view the new product configuration and LTO process as unwieldy
Unfortunately, there is no "magic bullet" to absolutely avoid the risks - do not
waste time searching for it. At best, the company must strive to mitigate
them during the tasks, described next.
Action: Plan and carry out a
comprehensive design process and conduct periodic reviews with users and
top management - so that the results conform to the company's strategic
The goal is to achieve the "right" perspective in new product family
definition - by balancing conflicting factors, including the usability of
configurable product models versus flexibility and the cost of family and
model maintenance. This goal also means that the following organizational
functions must be wholehearted participants in the decision process:
marketing and sales - to ensure usability of the configurable product models
by customers in a revised LTO process; engineering - to signify what can be
produced; and manufacturing - to indicate what is optimal to produce.
Typically, a project team will carry out a whole series of interrelated tasks to
reach the goal of the "right" perspective. In a general sequence:
- Understand the strategic vision regarding target markets and customer
characteristics. Developing answers to some questions may catalyze a fresh
definition of product families. Among them:
- What sector of the "To-Order"
spectrum will the company tackle?
- To what degree are customers sophisticated
and knowledgeable about what they need in a customized product?
- What will
be most effective for customers using the configurator software:
feature/option selection? - a needs analysis approach? - or combinations of
both? - in a guided selling mode?
- What are the customer's delivery
- Define and decide on the important factors in product family
and model development, considering the customer level of product
knowledge/expertise, product complexity and anticipated levels of
maintenance; then set priorities and balance the trade-off decisions.
- Visualize and evaluate the possible new or revised product family groupings. The
two extremes in product family definitions too few high-level product families
or too many product families will both result in unnecessary maintenance
time and cost.
- Do not let product configuration exceptions rule. This
can distort the design effort and be time consuming.
- Recognize that
there will be an inflection point (where the value is still increasing, but
at a reduced rate); for example, increasing flexibility in future model
maintenance is a desirable capability. On the other hand, too much
flexibility will complicate maintenance.
- Review the evolving
perspectives and recommended choices of proposed new product families with
users and top management to gain approval before expending additional design
effort and incurring costs.
- Create new product families; prototype one or
two to test for customer usability and maintenance considerations.
project team must accept the reality that attaining the "right" level of
perspective for new product families and configuration processes is not a once
through process; expect some iteration of some or all of the above actions.
Certainly, anticipate some rousing debates during this phase.
Risk Number 6:
Misestimating the Modeling Workload
Product modeling will be a major part of
the project budget and schedule. When developing the project plan, there are
two undesirable possibilities to be avoided: underestimating or
overestimating the modeling effort. Either can trigger common risks -
detrimental to project success:
- Diluting management commitment due to loss of
confidence in the project team
- Deteriorating team member's commitment to
the modeling effort
- Transferring team members - who "cannot be spared" - off
- Losing project momentum
Underestimating the product modeling
effort and subsequently requesting additional budget and time from the
executive steering committee will directly lead to the aforementioned risks.
Be aware of potential root causes, such as not understanding the process, or
the presence of highly motivated, but overly optimistic, team members.
Overestimating the product modeling effort also has additional downside.
Management and users may react negatively to initial schedules that are
perceived to take too much time before showing results. Here, root causes may
include a lack of understanding, or poorly motivated, overly pessimistic team
members who might be inclined to "pad" estimates for protection.
Action: Understand and evaluate the product complexity factors and the effort
required to develop product models - on time and within budget limits.
Because only the project team - no others - will be accountable for the accuracy
of the product modeling estimates, it is imperative they have the requisite
understanding of product modeling before they commit to a schedule. There is no
magic Excel spreadsheet to develop the estimates. Thus, it will be a highly
judgmental exercise demanding a high degree of attention to both product
complexity and team member capabilities.
In the Current
State review phase, the project team will have identified a number of product
variability factors. These are statistical and qualitative descriptors defining
the complexity of the products - that are needed to develop an accurate modeling
A company's products may span the range of Assemble-to-Order (ATO),
Configure-to- Order (CTO) and Engineering- to-Order (ETO). As a rule, the more
complex the product, e.g., CTO and ETO, the greater the product modeling
effort. Therefore, the following factors need to be carefully evaluated:
- Where do the products fall in the range of ATO, CTO and ETO?
- Number of
- Number of characteristics per product family as engines
in automobile models?
- Number of possible choices for each characteristic
as engine horsepower selections?
- Number of parts needed to make a unique
- What configuration relationships currently exist that
will need to be accounted for in the new product models: complex pricing
strategies, sub- level configurable BOMs, integration with CAD software, and
rules for dimensional and parametric calculations?
this time, a key question is . . . do the project team members have the
requisite understanding of the product modeling effort to develop accurate
Greater understanding of the future modeling effort should result
from collaborating with the software vendor - with their experience - to
leverage the project team's knowledge of the product. One distinct
possibility is to co-develop a prototype product model with the software
vendor. This approach also provides active software-specific training.
However, the project team must retain the eventual, ongoing modeling
responsibilities that should not be defaulted to the software vendor.
also a good time to maintain active dialogue with experienced configurator
implementers - in complex product companies with similar characteristics - to
gain a better understanding of the scope and intensity of the product
Furthermore, it may be necessary to initiate appropriate
actions to improve the project team's effectiveness, by reconfirming the
project objectives and rationale; regenerating motivation with fresh
management direction; and reaffirming roles and responsibilities, such as the
power to make decisions to resolve conflicts.
Risk Number 7: Not Selecting
the Appropriate Product Family to Start Product Modeling
will have a choice of which product family to select for the initial product
modeling effort. There are often two extremes to evaluate, simple or complex
- each with attendant risks. Starting with a complex family that promises
greater benefits may be tempting, because of the desire to gain the greatest
immediate benefits with improved product configurability. Nevertheless, starting
with a too complex product line may prove self-defeating. The project team
may not have the experience level required for a successful outcome. An
unfavorable, demoralizing result could cause a loss of confidence.
is an advantage to consider in starting with a simple product line: it shows
results quickly. Conversely, the project team may not gain the requisite
experience to later tackle the more difficult product lines.
neither extreme - too complex or too simple - is an appropriate tactic.
Action: Select the appropriate product family to model.
appropriate product family to start the modeling effort is properly a top
management decision. Accordingly, the project team must identify the selection
criteria before choosing and submitting a recommendation to the steering
committee. Not all decision criteria will be compatible, thus, forcing an
intelligent choice after considering:
- The substantial business impact,
such as potential to increase market share, that will help to gain and
sustain organizational momentum
- The degree of product complexity and the
learning experience to be gained for the remaining modeling efforts
readiness of the users
A prudent approach is to choose the first product
family to model that gains significant business impact, yet is not too
complex. Moreover, all users outside the project team should be able to fully
understand the evolving configuration model.
In addition, continuing success
would maintain the confidence of the management steering committee, as well
as the eventual users.
Risk Number 8: Inadequate Testing of the Configurable
One of the worst possible risks is to have customers find
errors in the product models as the models "go live." One cause of this risk
could be lack of valid input from knowledgeable personnel during earlier
phases of the project, resulting in an inadequate configurable product model.
Superficial model testing may not identify faulty configurable logic.
Action: Preempt the risk with a comprehensive testing plan comprised of
- Develop comprehensive validation methods, based on structured
input, to test all possible combinations of configuration logic and error
- Start testing early and do it often don't wait until the model is
- Establish acceptance (buyoff) criteria, for instance, the ability to
handle all structured input created to test the model logic, to produce error
messages, and to develop an accurate configuration
- Bring in prospective
users from outside the project team to assist in early and continuous
testing, such as those from sales, channel partners and selected customers
- Recheck the adequacy of product modeling training
Avoiding the risks of
inadequate testing exemplifies the integral relationship with previously
identified actions, particularly assigning the "right" people to the project
Staying on the Right Track
Risk Number 9: Not Adequately Defining New Processes for Maintaining and
Publishing of Models
In complex product companies facing blistering
competition, constant change is expected, usually at lightning speed, driven
by customer demands. Without adequate processes for updating product models
in a timely and efficient manner, a number of risks can surface:
- At an
operational level - increasing maintenance costs and extended time to
implement new models leads to the highest level of risk, that is . . .
- At the
strategic level - losing market opportunities, revenue and even customers. .
. perhaps the most painful of all risks
An underlying cause of this risk
might be that the project team mistakenly views the next actions as those to
tackle just before "going live" with the new product models. Worse yet is
that the project team did not exercise the discipline to take the following
actions in earlier planning phases.
Action: Identify, define and test all
processes associated with the timely revision of the product models well
before "going live."
In configuration management terms, the goal is to ensure
the revision integrity of the product models. A recognized best practice is
to conduct a continuous and comprehensive conference room pilot using the
evolving product models to generate these mandatory outcomes:
- Identify all
rules for change management of the product models
- Validate all interfaces to
related systems, such as ERP and PLM
- Define/clarify all policies and
responsibilities for the ongoing operation of the new processes
any final education and training requirements before the next activity
Risk Number 10: Not Planning for User Acceptance of the New Product
Waiting until late in the implementation cycle to
plan user acceptance will only exacerbate the risks, already cited above.
Scrambling at the last minute in reaction to user sensitive problems may
trigger even more resistance: fear of excessive work pressure and loss of
control at the time of "going live." The possible rewards of the new
processes may no longer appear adequate or satisfying.
proactively to develop a user acceptance plan.
The approach to avoid this
risk starts at the time of gaining management commitment. While stated in
this risk category, the project team must accomplish most of the following
actions throughout earlier phases of the project:
- Establish an active
communications methodology beginning as soon as management has authorized the
- Create a sense of "ownership" of the configurable product models and
the related new processes
- Provide a feedback mechanism to the project team
for additional improvements
- Incorporate a mix of motivational methods,
both positive (carrot), and as necessary, negative (stick)
the project team needs to execute a marketing strategy for creating
enthusiastic user acceptance, not foot dragging resistance.
For complex product companies immersed in the "To-Order" market, a
configuration project is not an option - it is an absolute necessity to
survive and thrive.
Forward thinking companies do not tolerate excuses for
inaction, as . . . "Oh, but we are not ready." This is because in today's
environment of blistering competition, doing nothing is one of the greatest
risks of all.
Take purposeful, preemptive actions to avoid the potential
risks to a configuration project - by catalyzing the next steps: review . .
rate . . and tailor the actions outlined in this guide. Then, aggressively
pursue them by closing any gaps between the company's current reality and the
actions needed to be successful. This will help to ensure the maximum rewards
from a configuration project - leading to major competitive advantages.
Richard W. Bourke is a principal consultant with extensive experience in
systems planning and implementation. His clients have ranged from Fortune 100
companies to small manufacturing firms. For other publications, visit www.bourkeconsulting.com.
Andrew Tubbs is the Vice
President, Professional Services for Access Commerce in North America. He has
more than 13 years experience implementing product configuration software
solutions and has led more than 100 successful projects, including deployment
of the first web-based configurator for the world's largest automotive OEM.
Notes and References
- Access Commerce, "Configurability: A Competitive Advantage," 2005.
- AMR Research, "Configuration is the Heart of
Customer Fulfillment for Complex Product Manufacturers," 2003.
Commerce, "Optimizing the Lead-to-Order Process," 2004.
- The Lean community
differentiates the two conditions of processes as Current
known as "As-Is") and Future State ("To-Be").
- Access Commerce, Cameleon
Model Designer methodology, 2000-2006
About Access Commerce
Access Commerce is a leading provider of Multichannel Commerce Solutions.
Access Commerce helps manufacturing, distribution, retail and service
companies sell products and services through any sales channels. The Cameleon
Commerce Suite simplifies key steps in the Lead-to-Order to- After-Sales
process by optimizing core business functions: e-commerce, electronic catalog
and guided selling, product and service configuration, advanced pricing,
quote and proposal generation, order management and BOM/routing generation.
Employees, channel partners and customers use Cameleon to eliminate errors
and non-value added activities, decrease cycle times and improve customer
satisfaction, resulting in increased revenue and a reduction in sales and
operational costs. Access Commerce customers include AREVA, Eaton, Invacare,
Leroy Merlin, Manitou, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Europe (MCFE), Perkins
Engines, Saint-Gobain, Schneider Electric, ThyssenKrupp, and X-Rite.
Access Commerce is headquartered in Toulouse, France and Chicago, Illinois
and has offices located in North America, France and Germany. Cameleon is a
trademark of Access Commerce SA and may be registered in certain
jurisdictions. All other product and company names mentioned are the property
of their respective owners.
For further information, email to
firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us at:
North American Headquarters
5215 Old Orchard Road
Suite 270 - Skokie, IL 60077
Rue Galilée - BP 87270
+33 5 61 39 78 78