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Critical Path Method for Product Development and Launch – Analysis of current systems in the space, and how to build a cohesive critical path dashboard

A critical path is the longest path (time) from start to finish for a given project track. The critical path method is used to manage all different types of projects from construction to software implementation, to planning and launching new products. Traditionally the two main methods for project management are “Waterfall”, or linear, and “Scrum” or agile. The critical path method incorporates elements from both of these project management styles but differs in that the critical path project track is generally longer (start of the project is earlier and end of the project is later). The stages, phases, tasks, and subtasks in the critical path method generally involve many dependent variables where the completion of a certain set of tasks kicks off additional sets of tasks not necessarily always needing to be completed in a linear order. 

Conceptually, having a dashboard to visualize a project’s critical path with real-time updates is utopic, but in reality, it is very hard to accomplish, and the more complex the project, the more challenging it is to view an entire critical path in one system of truth. This article reviews how businesses currently leverage different pieces of software to manage product development/launch critical paths and how horizontal platforms like Suuchi enable businesses to have a more complete critical path vantage point.

Concept & Design & Sampling

For most product-based industries, a critical path begins with some sort of inspiration phase where a product development team analyzes past sales trends to determine optimal product launches and concepts. In collaboration with Marketing, new products are conceived of and then communicated to the public. 

From mood/inspiration board, through CAD/sketches, to patterns, technical specs, and techpacks, a product gradually evolves from a thought into a technically calculated product. There are so many tools built for niche product-based industries with functionality to manage different parts of the concept & development phase. Adobe and excel are the most widely used tools for making silhouettes and Techpacks for apparel products and there are many other design tools like CAD Pro which does blueprints for more technical projects/products. There are PLM (product lifecycle management tools) which integrate or leverage their own UI to build techpacks from CADs generated in Adobe and sketches. Just to name a few…Centric, BeProduct, WFX, Backbone, Propel, Upchain…the list goes on and on. Each of these tools has varying feature sets, but these software tools generally pick up with product design and technical specs and leave off before a purchase order is executed. Most PLMs do not provide robust and collaborative costing capabilities for retailers and factories to align on pricing for a product purchase order. Additionally, most PLMs are not integrated with ERP systems or eCommerce selling sites so all of the project work completed in PLMs remain in PLMs rather than porting into a project track/dashboard.

Costing & Purchasing & Production Management

Once the technical specifications are aligned by the design team, sometimes the project changes hands to a different team – purchasing, production, product management divisions. While product development processes vary company to company and across industries, costing is generally the next logical process. 

Costing is historically a process completed across disparate systems like email, phone calls, and excel. Some companies will engage in an RFQ process or execute a bid mgmt. process. Some companies will solicit costing from one primary vendor, or in some cases, companies will request quotes from dozens. Ultimately, the goal of costing is to ensure proper margins will be achieved and to develop a 3-way match process (costingàPO pricingàInvoice/Pack-slip). Once costing is aligned on (sometimes before sometimes after), companies undergo a planning process to determine quantities, timeline, and logistics behind purchasing. Sometimes this is a simple reorder point plan, or sometimes it is top-down, bottoms up, etc model planning.

While the process seems simple of aligning on pricing and quantities then purchasing the product, companies use SUCH A WIDE VARIETY of systems and steps to complete these processes. The vast majority of companies account for the purchase order in their ERP system (NetSuite, SAP, Oracle, Workday, Sage, Intacct, Holded, Quickbooks, etc). But the challenge is that ERP systems only account for the purchase when in reality most companies need to manage/track some sort of production or contract manufacturing process. ERPs have some add on modules to track more granularly, there are PO management systems like SourceDay, Anvyl, Coupa, Procurify, AvidXchange, etc, and then many companies manage these processes offline in email, excel, and google sheets. Planning systems are also becoming popular – Toolio, Logility, and PredictHQ to name a few. 

Quality Management

Once production is complete, some industries undergo detailed quality checks to observe stitching, complete safety testing, etc. Some companies leverage 3rd party quality agencies and some physically complete quality checks internally. Tools like Inspectorio, IQMS, and MasterControl are used to manage and track quality assurance processes, but most companies leverage spreadsheets and emails. Companies will also aggregate customer reviews and return data once the product starts selling leveraging tools like Zendesk.

Logistics

Finally, when production and quality phases are complete, it is time to manage inbound logistics to distribution centers. Product may change hands several times by freight forwards through the export and import process. A lot can also go wrong during the logistics process. Weather implications, closures/delays at port, and geopolitical factors cause high variation in delivery timeframes. Having visibility and knowing when products will arrive is crucial in driving customer satisfaction and business predictability yet many companies do not have integrated updates from freight forwarders and inbound shipments. Companies use tools such as Shipwell, BlueYonder, Shipbob, Manhattan Transportation, Shippo, Kuebix, etc.

Invoicing & Payment

Payment terms on purchase orders vary. Some businesses pay 50% upfront 50% on delivery, some are given terms from shipping, terms from arrival, etc. Ultimately, eventually, it is time to pay invoices. Most of the time, invoice payment is issued in an ERP system or in tools like Bill.com. Because there are different systems for purchasing, product development, costing management, and receiving not only is tracking the project challenging, but also matching invoice amounts and product quantity with costing and purchase order information is disparate and challenging. 

Project Reporting

Most products-based businesses candidly manage their critical paths in excel or google sheets. These are universal systems that everyone knows how to operate, but they are inherently disconnected from every system used to execute project tasks throughout the critical path. A step up from excel/google is tools like Monday.com, Wrike, Smartsheet, and Asana. These are all cloud-based applications, most of which are also siloed in nature but each of these vendors provides some API access to tie things together. In reality, these systems do not manage much of the critical path, but they provide nice dashboards of project statuses.

Tying Critical Path Together

The GRID provides a unique horizontal approach to managing the critical path for product businesses. From technical product/concept development to costing/bid management, to purchasing, to production tracking, to quality reports, to logistics tracking, the GRID spans the horizontal swath and in doing so, organizes the data in real-time to master WIP reports and dashboards. To say any solution is a mile wide and a mile deep, is a bold claim. The GRID is deeper in some buckets than others, but it provides a flexible interface to literally manage the entire critical path. For some companies with unique processes or those interested in investing in best-in-breed point solutions, the GRID offers flexible APIs and productized integrations to tie the whole critical path together.  

Take control of your supply chain. Be proactive with data at your fingertips – do not simply react.

Bobby Hamill is the VP of Sales at Suuchi Inc. With over five years experience at Netsuite, Bobby leads the Suuchi team to help hundreds of businesses take the first step to a digital future for their supply chains. Learn more about Bobby.

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