In a global manufacturing group, the quest to improve operational excellence and shorten time-to-market in R&D is not helped in any way by organisational silos or tracking projects in myriad Excel spreadsheets. Read SWM International’s success story about how it successfully transformed the governance of its R&D project portfolio, as told by Sabine Perret, Stéphane Rouillard and Raoul Hervé.
SWM International is a leading manufacturing group employing 3,600 people in 24 production sites spread across North & South America, Europe and Asia. Organised into two divisions, namely Engineered Papers (EP) and Advanced Materials & Structures (AMS), SWM International has long-standing expertise in the manufacture of highly technical solutions not only from paper but also materials such as fibre, resins and polymers. The group is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and generated revenue of US$1.07 billion in 2020.
In 2015, SWM International decided to re-organise its R&D units by adding a department-wide team responsible for operational excellence, including members with a range of profiles and skills from various sites around the world. The differences in R&D processes from one business unit to another could be an obstacle to overall manufacturing performance. The willingness to share more information to enable different teams to work better together was obvious, but how to achieve it in a multi-lingual environment across many sites much less so. The need for a single, unifying system was soon keenly felt.
In 2015, the average R&D project lasted 2 years, and was sometimes disconnected from any business reality. Given that the objective was to diversify group revenue sources by 50% by 2025, we absolutely had to become more structured and put new governance standards in place to improve project management and avail ourselves of the appropriate reporting and management systems.
Research Innovation & Development Director
SWM International’s R&D units are spread around various sites all over the world, and previously did not use any common or shared applications to monitor project progress, with the result that they were more or less working in silos. While one unit had implemented a project tracker with a monthly review process based on MS Project scheduling, for many others, project tracking was a relatively basic affair, mainly involving Excel spreadsheets.
R&D teams therefore needed to align themselves with common, shared processes for the various phases and activities in R&D projects by adopting easy-to-use systems that would help them to structure themselves according to their respective maturity levels. The new team, working across all R&D units, consequently looked for an accessible package, not necessarily with all the bells and whistles of MS Project, but one that would manage project portfolios effectively.
To overcome the silo effect and improve how we work together, the first job was to harmonise how all the teams functioned. Then we were able to implement a shared vision across all active projects. We therefore needed a system that could serve as a complete, centralised reference base of all projects.
Continuous improvement project manager
SWM International set up a pilot project using the IDhall application in 2016 for two separate teams based in Quimperlé and Le Mans (France). It was first used for some fairly quick projects to meet customer requests for product adaptations or enhancements, and then on more complicated projects such as additions to product ranges, diversification into new markets, and so on.
The objective was to support gradual change for teams by agreeing on the right way to manage various projects. Special attention has also been paid to the business case. Users are consequently obliged to define the reason for their project and estimate the costs and the benefits (margin contribution) for the next three years. This information provides an accurate financial forecast for subsequent stages (costs of testing, human resources, purchases, projected profits for the next few years, etc.).
Once IDhall was implemented, we cut R&D project durations by around 30%. Teams immediately had the necessary visibility over progress, so they could housekeep the portfolio and prioritise the action needed on certain projects. The average duration of an R&D project has now halved, which gives us greater responsiveness to customers and the market.
Research Innovation & Development Director
IDhall has helped SWM International to structure its R&D around a comprehensive picture of all its R&D projects. From the outset, its user-friendliness meant IDhall soon became the go-to system for storing and sharing all R&D data as a matter of routine for all users. The practical outcome now seen is that the R&D department and teams have a single, consolidated view of project portfolios in one, comprehensive reference base, and working practices have converged around shared terminology and processes which greatly facilitates the exchanging of information and synergies all over the world. These benefits have also freed up more time for actual innovation. SWM International filed as many patents over the last 3 years as in its first 25. In addition, some operational sites have started to use the system to coordinate other project portfolios, related to capital expenditure or to monitor support activities in the field of security, for example.
Currently, 60% of R&D projects are targeting new products to expand the business, in both established and new markets, and 40% are support projects. Every stage in the action plans is closely monitored using the various management tools available, such as the oft-used Gantt chart, the business challenges vs. time matrix to find out when the project will be mature and what the business risks are, the Stage Gate used with the division’s major projects used to assess each project’s potential, and so forth. The effort/benefits matrix is, for instance, greatly appreciated for assessing business or technological risks in view of the potential estimated benefits and deciding whether to kick off an action plan. SWM International consequently has all the right tools at its disposal to achieve its targets and further increase the proportion of R&D projects aimed at developing new products with a shorter time-to-market.
The IDhall system is user-friendly compared with other applications and simplifies the necessary change management. Employees can easily see the KPIs and reports, which improves visibility over workloads and the effective use of resources. The collaborative aspect is boosted, it is much easier to share data between teams in real time, so they can work together more effectively.
NGP (Next Generation Products) R&D Manager