Managing Product Complexity, Regulations and Requirements
Jeffrey Rowe posted on February 06, 2019 |

In a recent study conducted by engineering.com, dubbed Design Teams: Requirements Management & Product Complexity, 246 design and engineering professionals were asked about the increasing complexity of their products and how product requirements are helping to successfully manage this complexity.

There was time, and not all that long ago, when products were designed and produced serially and sequentially in what was known as “the throwing it over the transom approach.” This meant that when a specific portion of the design process was completed, the design often went blindly to the next phase, where additional design work was performed. This process—which was actually not very efficient and often resulted in products that were less than optimum quality—continued until the product was deemed ready for production/manufacturing.

Although this approach was far from ideal, it worked for many products that were relatively simple and were totally mechanical or electrical. Those days, however, are gone as most products today include electrical, mechanical and software components, with new materials, smaller package sizes and tighter tolerances. Many of these increasingly complex products would not be possible without the advent of product requirements management.

So, what is requirements management and why is it essential for complex product design?

A requirement is a defined capability that a product is intended to fulfill. Requirements management is the process of collecting, analyzing, refining and prioritizing product requirements and then planning for their realization in the final product. The goal of requirements management is to ensure organizational validation and that a product meets customer needs.

The most vital aspect of requirements management is constant and equitable communication between product development team members, management and even customers to accommodate changes to requirements that will inevitably occur throughout the course of a project.

Requirements management doesn’t end with a single product’s release but usually continues and evolves during subsequent product development cycles with improvements, enhancements and new designs.

In the Design Teams: Requirements Management & Product Complexity report, an amazing percentage (92%) reported that their products increased in complexity over the last five years due to things such as mechanical designs becoming more intricate, more electronics being included, and handling new materials contained and processed in products.

Amazingly, despite the increasing complexity, only 15 percent of respondents relied on a dedicated requirements management system. This was either casually linked or a likely factor in reported negative outcomes.

Although products are indeed becoming more complex and may be subject to increasing regulation, the probability of successful product outcomes can rise dramatically when a requirements management system is introduced into a product development workflow.

How Are Products Becoming More Complex?

Without a doubt, products generally are becoming more complex, but the engineering.com survey found that only about half of the product development respondents considered their products/systems to be complex.

Interestingly, though, in recent years, most product development teams have reported that their products have become more complex for a wide variety of reasons.

Q: In the last 5 years, how have your products become more complex?
Q: In the last 5 years, how have your products become more complex?

Of nine common types of requirements, ranging from product safety to regulatory compliance, respondents were asked to identify all of the requirement types critical to their products.

Q: What are the requirement types critical for your product?
Q: What are the requirement types critical for your product?

While product data management (PDM)/product lifecycle management (PLM) systems provide ways to manage product features, most lack the capabilities to manage the many types of other requirements. This deficiency often produces in-house, homegrown requirements management systems that often lack the capabilities of dedicated systems developed specifically for that purpose.

Highly regulated industries are the most likely to suffer the consequences and bad potential outcomes that result from an insufficient, informal requirements management system.

Too many companies manage their requirements with systems that are not purpose built, while relatively few have invested in a formal, dedicated requirements management system. This is changing, however, especially in highly regulated industries, such as the aerospace and medical arenas.

How Are Product Development Teams Managing Requirements?

The majority of responding product development teams experienced some form of production outcome failure because of poor requirements management practices. Additionally, many development teams reported shipping products that failed to meet all their requirements due to poor requirements management.

Many of the respondents who experienced increased product complexity acknowledged spending excessive time tracking requirements due to inadequate requirements management systems, which resulted in poor requirements management practices and business outcomes. Again, the most highly regulated industries are the ones most likely to be reprimanded or penalized by regulatory agencies due to noncompliance—often a result of insufficient requirements management.

Q: Has your company ever suffered any of the following outcomes due to poor requirements  management?
Q: Has your company ever suffered any of the following outcomes due to poor requirements management?

Scott Roth, CEO of Jama Software, a requirements management system supplier said, “Traditional product development processes and tools are not keeping up with the growing complexity of creating new breakthrough products. Jama gives product development organizations a single platform, enabling customers to realize revenue potential faster and achieve an ongoing competitive advantage.”

Why Aren’t More Product Development Teams Using a Requirements Management System?

Although a majority of product development teams admit to product outcome failures due to poor requirements management, almost the same percentage categorized their current requirements management process as effective. Isn’t this a contradiction?

The reason behind this irony is the fact that relatively few development teams at this point have implemented a formal requirements management system. Because they have not deployed a sophisticated requirements system, many of these same respondents are dismissive of the need for such systems and willing to live with the failures, while at the same time offering some minimal level of acceptance for the requirements they rely on and are forced to live with as “good enough.”

Not surprisingly, development teams who have purchased formal requirements management systems found them to be much more effective than those with no system or one that is internally pieced together.

The likelihood of delivering better business outcomes greatly increases by implementing a solution that manages complex product requirements from idea through development, launch and iteration. It brings people and data together in one place, providing visibility and actionable insights into the product development lifecycle, and equips teams with the tools they need to analyze impacts, track decisions, and ensure the quality of the product they set out to build.

A dedicated requirements management system acts as a hub for understanding the complete product development lifecycle, enabling product managers and engineers to track requirements, decisions and relationships on multiple levels so they can deliver compliant, market-driven products effectively. It helps teams deliver high-quality products on time and on budget by aligning stakeholders, identifying risks early on, and visualizing connections between regulations, requirements and test cases throughout the development process.

A dedicated requirements management system also provides continuous access to the information needed as a system of record for achieving and maintaining alignment with real-time updates across hardware and software teams in a single location. The system reduces the likelihood that decisions will be based on assumptions or guesses and makes it possible to quickly find the information and answers a team needs by:

  • Comparing two versions of a requirement side by side and seeing what changed
  • Automatically keeping data organized and secure across one project or many
  • Taking a “snapshot” that documents the current state of a project, or any subset of a project, at a given point in time, providing a baseline
  • Creating catalogs of reusable requirements to get products to market faster
  • Generating branches of a product to develop a variant or a new version

It’s no secret that the products most development teams are creating are continuing to become much more complex. However, too few of these teams are investing in the tools that would help them to better manage the requirements these products increasingly demand. The good news is that more development teams are realizing that better products, performance and outcomes are becoming more dependent on a formal, dedicated requirements management system as a vital component of the product development process.

Read the research report discussed in this article, Design Teams: Requirements Management & Product Complexity, to learn more.

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