When you’re in the business of manufacturing, it’s important to know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing and to leave nothing to chance. There are too many resources invested across the entire manufacturing process to be flippant about it. That means you need to properly plan what you want to create and make sure you’re asking all the right questions across the entire lifecycle of your product.
Focusing on your product in isolation won’t be enough for you—you will need to have an intimate knowledge of your clients and their needs, demands, pain points, and desires. The more you understand your clients, the easier it is to create a product that they will purchase over and over again.
Understanding the market also helps you to create manufacturing elasticity based on forecasted demands. Nothing is worse than getting stuck with a warehouse full with products that are no longer needed or required by your clients. Especially when if it’s avoidable.
By Malakooti, B. (2013). Operations and Production Systems with Multiple Objectives. John Wiley & Sons. (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
When you start looking at the products you create, a pattern emerges. The pattern is usually roughly the shape of a bell curve: You create a product, there is rapid growth, and then the sales numbers stabilize, slow down, or decline. This bell curve tells the entire story of the lifecycle of a product.
To help you with forecasting and predicting the shape of this bell curve in product manufacturing, many companies adopt a method called Product Lifecycle Management. This process can be used both for marketing and sales.
In Product Lifecycle Management the marketing approach of a product is divided into four stages: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. When product life cycle is based on sales volume, introduction and growth often become one stage.
You Need to Ask Questions
To fully understand what is happening in the product lifecycle you must continue to ask questions. However, not every stage in the lifecycle of a product requires the same type of questions. In the first stage of the lifecycle you’ll be looking for answers in relation to value of the product and the perfect audience. When you’re much further into the lifecycle of a product, you’ll need answers around product improvement and quality control.
The four stages roughly focus on the following:
Phase 1—Introduction: Recognize the need for change and the value our product can bring to the market.
First up, everybody involved will have to understand what Product Lifecycle Management is and how it can help the business. That’s why the first couple of questions are specific to the process of Product Lifecycle Management rather than aimed at a particular product.
- How are the Product Lifecycle Management’s objectives aligned to the company’s overall stakeholder strategy?
- What do we need to know about Product Lifecycle Management?
Use this phase of the product lifecycle to really understand the customers for your product, as well as the pain or frustrations your product will alleviate or minimize.
Don’t stop with the customers, though: Identify the relationships you need to build or maintain in order to create the perfect product for the perfect client for the perfect price.
And last but not least—boundaries. What will you not create? Where do you stop designing? Setting clear boundaries to a project outcome (or in this case, a product) can save you a lot of money.
You could start with a minimum viable product and ask customers for feedback in phase two. When you decide to do this you need to ensure your turnaround times are quick, and the improvement steps are done often so that the evolution of the product doesn’t hinder the quality perception of your clients.
- Are customers identified and segmented according to their different needs and requirements?
- Is there a completed description of the suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers (SIPOC)?
- What are the boundaries of the scope? When do we stop developing this product?
Phase 2—Growth: Measure the current performance and analyze the results.
Now that the product is on the market and sales numbers are coming in, you can start measuring the results. The tricky thing is that everything that can be measured shouldn’t necessarily be measured. You need to make choices on the most obvious and appropriate measurements for your products.
What gets measured, gets managed, so don’t brush over this step. Make sure you answer the question diligently, and make sure that you have the capabilities and resources to measure the right things that help you increase your sales and grow your business.
Some example questions about measuring and analyzing:
- What measurements are being captured?
- What is the total cost in relation to deploying the product utilizing Product Lifecycle Management, including any consulting or professional services?
- What are your current levels and trends in key measures or indicators of product and process performance that are important to—and directly serve—your customers?
Phase 3—Maturity: Test and Innovate while maintaining the product’s performance.
We are now at a stage of maturity. The market knows your product. You can predict the sales numbers, as you have multiple years or seasons of history that you can rely on. The most important thing now is to keep the sales trajectory moving in a positive direction.
You now need to ask questions about the validity of the product in a changing market. Do you need to improve the product, or change the marketing message? Has a new audience emerged for the same product that you can tap into?
Example questions to ask are:
- What resources are requirement for the improvement efforts?
- What actually has to improve and by how much?
- Risk Management: What are the things that could go wrong?
Phase 4—Decline: How do we retain the benefits?
Eventually there comes a time when sales start slowing down. You’ve tried every product extension trick in the book: advertising more, lowering the price for the clients, providing add-on products, etc.
If you still want to continue selling this product, you need to ask yourself the really hard questions in relation to its profitability, and how to control the environment in which you are creating and selling the product.
There will come a time when you need to decide to take the product off the market and to focus on new products, or new markets.
Example questions to ask during this phase are:
- Is there a standardized process that could lower the cost?
- What can you control?
- What is the craziest thing we can do?
While it looks like a linear process in paper, these phases will happen at different speeds for different products. For each of your products you are asking different questions. This helps identify where each product sits in their lifecycle and how to manage your entire portfolio of products. While you’re identifying the customer base for a new product, a different product will move into the last phase of declining sales. Are you able to fulfill a need in the same customer group with the new product?
Communicate and Document
Now that you understand the questions to ask in every phase of the product lifecycle, you can clearly see the need for solid documentation. Every decision needs to be recorded so that it can be cross-referenced later. Only when every product team creates these records we can learn from each other and improve our product lifecycle with every new product design.
Ivanka Menken is a serial entrepreneur and, since 2000, owner and co-founder of The Art of Service. She specializes in creating organizations that manage their services in a sustainable and customer-driven manner. Menken is the author of the Product Lifecycle Management Self-Assessment Guide.