For more than 25 years I’ve worked in the after-sales domain. Hardly ever I came across the words digital thread. That changed when PTC acquired ServiceMax a couple of months ago. I wish I had come across the digital thread concept a lot sooner. I’ve come to understand it as a powerful paradigm and very useful in creating momentum for digital transformation. I get even more excited when I tie the ends of the thread and create an infinity loop.
What’s so compelling?
Having been a service executive for 25 years, I like to talk about service excellence, but my actions are more around service basics. When I hear a phrase like “data is the new oil,” I’m skeptical at first, then immediately curious.
I’d like to illustrate this through research ServiceMax commissioned about the rise of Asset and Service Data Gravity. Though friend and foe agree on the value of data, siloed organizational design and behavior inhibit the flow of information. Since the publication of the report in 2018, I’ve seen and heard many more stories about the value of data, but I’ve always missed the handle, the story to break the siloes.
What is the binding entity across all the business functions of an organization? The product they sell! Some people have the idea, others design the product, next you produce it, then you sell it. Once the product goes into the field, you help your customers install, operate, sustain, and decommission the product.
In each phase of this product lifecycle, the product creates data. Instead of each organizational function creating its own siloed representation of the product, you can picture a ‘thread’ where each station passes the baton onto the next. That is a compelling message for me.
Design for Service
One of my favorite activities in my current job is that I get to do frequent ride-alongs. I ‘staple’ myself to a service request and observe each step in the process. The eye-opening part of the ride-along is the field piece—where either the customer, technician, or depot repair operator is in front of the product, tasked to fix it.
Sometimes it appears like we ask customers, technicians and operators to perform service activities blindfolded. Some examples:
- The engineering of the product is optimized for manufacturing but not for service.
- The service and operating manuals are available as reference documents, but not as actionable bite-sized instructions contextual to the job at hand.
- There is a spare parts catalog, but finding the right part is like finding Wally. Especially when the product is a configure-to-order product.
All these bullets make it harder to service products. More effort. More cost. Less efficiency. Less margin. Lower customer experience.
By applying the digital thread, we can picture an alternative future. Engineering designs a product with an intended use case in mind. Maintenance engineering translates the product design and use case into a recommended preventive maintenance scheme, spare parts kit, and component MTBF. Wouldn’t it be great if all that knowledge flowed into the after-sales and service delivery function? On the same platform?
Closing the loop
Now we have a linear thread starting with the definition of a product all the way up to sustaining and augmenting the product, what would happen if we closed the loop? Why is that important and who benefits?
Let me tell you a true story about when I managed a field service organization. The engineering department asked me to collect 25+ data points during the debrief of every service activity. Knowing that my technicians had not signed up for the job to do admin, I needed a lever to steer the conversation.
The good news—engineering recognized the value of data once the product was in the field. The bad— the cost of collecting the data was in after-sales/service, and it was too costly. After some discussion, engineering reviewed the list of 25 questions and settled on 5 that had an impact on value creation. Engineering funded service to collect the data. Technicians understood the reasoning behind the 5 extra questions. Technicians got extra time (and pay) for retrieving the additional data points.
In all, we closed the loop, created value, balanced cost/effort, got lasting funding, and mitigated adoption. We all won.
There is more
Once engineering receives relevant and quality feedback on the performance of products in the field, you can set up a ‘plan versus actual’ process. In designing revision 1, engineering had a plan. With the product in the field, they have the actual. The comparison of ‘plan versus actual’ is useful in designing revision 2 of the product. This will benefit both the sale of new products as well as allow the service function to target the existing installed base with engineering and upgrade offerings.
Knowing that modern products are getting more complex and have an ever-increasing digital component, establishing a closed PLM-SLM loop is critical to a sustainable and profitable business model.
Let me end with a personal note. Throughout my career, it was fashionable to say, “customer first”. Being in service, I deliberately voiced a counter message: “Design your business processes along the axis of the product and service lifecycle”. Hence you can see why I am so enthusiastic about the digital thread concept and the infinity loop. For me, it is a game changer.
I have no doubt why organizational siloes should, even must, work together. When you plot each organizational function on the digital thread and infinity loop, you have a simple, powerful, and reinforcing visualization. The graphic emphasizes both the organizational dependencies and value amplification. No surprise, I will repeat this message infinite times.
Learn more about PTC’s digital thread message in this LiveWorx keynote replay with Neil Barua, Schneider Electric and Alcon.