Product Line Flow

Smart Product Line Management demands a new mindset that differs from knowing how to conceptualize, develop, and manage one product at a time.

Think of a product line that encompasses many products. Or it may include services or combinations of products and services. It doesn’t matter if your line is hi-tech or low tech, nor B2B or B2C. What’s critical is the plurality of the line. The focus is on multiple offerings, not just a single product.

If you manage the line, you know your goal is to maximize results from the entire line. It’s not to manage the line’s products separately. This job forces product line managers to think differently. It demands a new mindset that differs from knowing how to conceptualize, develop, and manage one product at a time.

See the System, See the Flow

To see the difference, consider the movement brought on by needed changes to the line. You’ll find something always is changing. It may be product features or customer needs. Or perhaps it’s the competitor’s investments or their strategy moves. It could also be the supply chain, resources, or technologies, each with its nuances. And it may even be sales and marketing. The list of changes may seem endless.

The push and pull on a line are constant. If you want excellent results, building the right mindset to oversee and guide the dynamic is vital. The challenge is to see the change as a flow of many parts. And it’s a flow affected by forces that help and hinder each part’s movement.

The goal is to maximize the product line flow by increasing its velocity. And you do this by actively influencing and guiding the flow. But before diving into what this means and how to do it, let’s first consider the destination. Where do you wish the flow to take the line?

Where’s the Product Line Going?

To determine velocity, we need to know our target or objective. Velocity is not just a change over time or movement, for movement’s sake. It’s a change toward a defined result. Suppose progress toward the objective happens faster. This speed-up means the velocity increases. And if progress slows down, the velocity decreases.

Every product line has a unique objective. But all objectives have three common orientations. Knowing these orientations allows us to see where the line is and measure where we’d like to move it.

The orientations are straightforward and easy to understand.

  1. toward greater cash flow;
  2. toward higher customer satisfaction; and
  3. toward more competitive positioning.

These dimensions allow us to spot the objective as a point on a three dimensional X-Y-Z plot. And the product line’s velocity is the speed of the progress from a current position toward that spot.

Dynamic Objectives

But recognize the objective is not static, as many past strategy experts describe it. Each X-Y-Z measure is relative to a previous point in time. For example, a cash flow amount may be relative to the amount that flowed over the last twelve months. As your line goes forward with time, so too does the time-frame. We don’t wish to achieve a static objective and stop work. Instead, we want to improve the velocity toward the moving target continually.

I know I’m getting geeky here, but please bear with me.

Product Line as a System

To drive product line velocity, we must see the product line as a system. The purpose is to understand the system’s parts, what’s flowing, and what forces help or hinder the flow. That’s product line management. Thankfully, many product line managers know this intuitively. Yet laying out the product line as a system is relatively new to most managers.

Let’s set the big picture view and the mindset that leads to excellent product line performance. Start by thinking of the line’s movement as a flowing fluid. Add to the flow all of the products, new and existing. Then add all identifiable concepts, those that may become development projects. Next, add sets of customer needs and mix in competition. Now blend in all of your organization’s functional contributors, those who help create, make, deliver, and service the line’s offerings.

Seeing Your Product Line Flow

Now, stand back and look at the flow. Is it a rough turbulent flow or a smooth laminar flow? Do you even know where it’s flowing? The nature of the flow matters because the time and energy spent on a turbulent flow will be far greater than for a smooth laminar flow. It’s not that turbulent flows don’t produce results. They do. It’s that turbulent product line flows use more resources and take much more time to deliver the same volume throughput as a laminar flow.

The big deal is that every organization has limits or bottlenecks that constrict the flow. This bottleneck, caused by a shortage of skills, people, or money, can worsen a turbulent flow. And if you think the solution is always to increase resources, think again. The problem could be your market positions, technology architectures, and products going in different directions. If you tackle a product line flow problem by defining it only as a project management issue, you may even aggravate the underlying cause by doubling down in the wrong direction.

Situations become much worse when a competitor’s flow is less turbulent and more laminar than your flow. You’ll fall further behind in markets and technologies. That’s not good.

Ramping up Product Line Velocity

So suppose you wish to improve your product line velocity, yet have only limited resources. This situation is common across most companies. But most companies don’t follow the best approach and don’t enable a more laminar flow. Instead, they continue to push harder and generate more turbulence. It seems when managers don’t know what’s best to do, they revert to do more of what they’ve done but only faster.

Before going further and explore the answer to the pushing-harder turbulence dilemma, please view this short video.

The video is important because it shares a visual metaphor of what happens within a product line flow. Please note the three states for water to pass through the bottleneck.

Turbulent Flow

The first flow in the video demonstrates a turbulent, almost random movement of air and water.  While there is throughput, there’s negligible flow alignment, and the results are poor. The turbulent water flow is analogous to a product line with each product and project managed independently.

Most companies have moved their product line approach past the turbulent flow state.

Vortex-induced Laminar Flow

The second flow reaches a laminar flow but not directly through the bottleneck. Instead, the forced-vortex sends the water into a swirl. This is equivalent to project portfolio management driving or forcing development project prioritization. It’s helpful but not complete.

Portfolio management has several critical shortcomings. It doesn’t include front-end or in-market activities. It’s often applied across multiple product lines, pitting one line against another. And it’s more likely to maximize the flow based only on project speed and cost, not customer satisfaction and competitive positioning.

Direct-Laminar Flow

The third flow moves through the bottleneck very quickly. It’s set up by enabling direct airflow into the bottle, and direct water flow out. This direct-laminar flow is comparable to a product line guided by a full strategy that targets a three-dimensional objective.

The product line strategy and how it’s carried out is critical to the direct-laminar flow. It demands directing, guiding, and responding to every part and force in the product line system. For many companies, the direct laminar flow requires significant changes from turbulent and vortex approaches.

Table 1: A summary of major flows.  Rapid product line velocity demands a direct-laminar flow.

Product Line Flow

High-Dependency Helps

There’s an important principle that helps us create the direct-laminar flow. As complex as a product line system may appear, a smart strategy will spell out high-dependency across the system’s parts and forces. And high-dependency means you need fewer focal points to control and drive the entire system and its flow.

It’s the reduction of focal points that induces faster direct-laminar flow. If you have fewer and more powerful focal points, you can gain laminar flow and more efficiently direct it through the bottleneck without creating a wasteful swirl.

The opposite is true for turbulent flows. The lack of interdependency across the product line system’s parts and forces is what causes the turbulence. It’s because without dependencies, there are more focal points. Perhaps even one focal point for every product. And when there are more focal points, there’s also more disruption and conflict.

Making Progress

The challenge is to figure out when and how to abandon the multi-focal point approach and recast a more powerful strategy with interdependent parts and forces.

Determining the limited set of focal points that lead to a laminar flow is the essence of product line strategy formulation. These are the critical parts and forces within the product line system that induce both alignment and a rapid flow in the correct direction. And if you’re like many managers and don’t know your line’s focal points, please recognize you have some important work in front of you.

The good news is there’s existing knowledge that can help. We know some likely candidates for the powerful focal points based on experience, trial and error, and logic. Here are the three most common:

  1. Internal To The Company Platform-Leverage
  2. Targeted Product Attribute Positioning
  3. Synergy (Beyond Alignment) Across Functional Contributions

Great Actions, Bad Focal Points

Many managers wish to jump out front with innovation, branding, and technology-reuse to drive the product line. Or they seek to extend a sales force, double-down on being customer-oriented, or lean-out waste. All of this is great, and you’ll find books, webinars, and conferences that expound on each. But these approaches are less likely to be the critical focal points of a good product line strategy. Instead, they’re more likely to be the forces within the product line system and be directed by the focal points. Smart product line strategies deliberately set up the best focal points and then orchestrate such forces accordingly.

Building the focus and embedding it across your organization is vital to creating a laminar flow. Once you know the strategy’s focal points and product line velocity goals, you must build an intense focus that drives that flow. It’s the intensity of focus that enables a laminar flow. You do this with people, processes, and tools.

Orchestrating The Product Line Flow

You’ll find product line management is about orchestrating the focal points and coordinating internal forces. And to do so, you must respond to change internal and external to the line. Overseeing this responsiveness is the core job for the product line and focal point managers.

There’s much more to discuss on product line systems and their flow. Hopefully, this blog has given you a primer on the topic. If you contribute to or manage a product line, I encourage you to learn more.

A laminar product line flow will produce results far beyond other approaches. Adept Group offers several venues to boost your knowledge and help you and your colleagues understand, set up, and achieve a highly productive laminar flow.

Some Topics to Consider

As always, if you send me an email, I’d be glad to discuss any related topic. To get you started, take a moment to consider a few topics:

  • How does multi-generational planning (MGPP) play out in Product Line Systems thinking and maximizing Flow Velocity?
  • What are some organizational symptoms of a turbulent flow?
  • Are there examples of where a focus on the Product line as a system produces stellar results?
  • What challenges do companies face when pursuing improved Product Line systems flow?
  • How do published “best practices” sometimes hinder a product line’s flow? Are you saying that by pursuing best practices, we may be making matters worse?
  • What’s the difference between a product line strategy and an innovation strategy?
  • What change must we tackle to set up focal points and bring about greater flow?
  • Why do we need to include oversight of the front-end if we wish to create a laminar flow?
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