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Curiosity as Guiding Principle for PLM Change


Jos Voskuil and Stefaan van Hooydonk

“Systems Thinking: An Essential Skill for Living in the 21st Century, needed for PLM, embedded in curiosity”

— Jos Voskuil - 

On 22 April, 2024. Earth Day, Stefaan van Hooydonk organised an interactive webinar titled “Curiosity and the Planet,” which addressed the need for new technologies and approaches to living in a sustainable future. Jos Voskuil, co-founder of the PLM Green Global Alliance, was one of the participants who noticed the complementary facets of our expertise. We both feel that we are at a crucial stage in humanity's journey to living comfortably on this planet, and we need to act. different are teams from organisations, other than size and numbers of people? Does curiosity work the same way whether you are talking about a small group or a large group?

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is the process of managing the entire lifecycle of a product, from conception to disposal. It is a core process for pretty much all manufacturing companies.


Where PLM was initially considered a tool and discipline for engineers, the term has evolved into a strategy for bringing products to market and supporting them through their whole lifecycle (1) Instigated by governments, customers and forward-looking companies themselves, the concept of sustainability has also made inroads in PLM thinking.

As a result, Product manufacturing companies now have to think holistically about the entire lifecycle of their products, such as the environmental impact of manufacturing the products, using the products, and the product's end-of-life footprint. 


The two authors are of the opinion that the shift towards a sustainability mindset in PLM is a stimulating and much-needed progression. However, they also recognise that this transition, given its inherent complexity, is not without its hurdles. They acknowledge that this new approach necessitates a fresh mindset, new skills, new processes, and motivated professionals. Importantly, they underscore that a mindset of intentional curiosity can foster the right environment for companies to embrace this change and take the necessary actions.

They will argue that curiosity as a management principle is gradually gaining traction in the boardroom. In short, curious organisations role model permission and build a culture to challenge the status quo. They actively invite new ideas to novel thoughts and pay attention to weak signals. Finally, they take intentional steps towards building curiosity enhancing cultures: They recruit and promote curiosity and also take responsible steps in light of challenges. Sustainability is one such - important and urgent - challenge, and it is through the actions of these organisations that we can hope to overcome it.  

A Much-Needed Development

In virtually all countries around the world, regulations are enticing companies to develop and deliver more sustainable products and services. They also require them to report on their overall sustainability strategy and progress. These regulations are urging company leadership to take a fresh look at their products and overall business strategy and operations.

Increasingly, businesses and customers demand that companies prove that they have solid sustainability plans in place. For instance, in the Netherlands, in public tenders, 20% of the decision to award contracts is based on the sustainability plans of the contractors. In the consumer world, especially those under 40, consumers are paying attention to brands' sustainability footprints.

Manufacturers themselves also demand that their suppliers show tight management of actions related to GHG (greenhouse gas).

Product companies are not waiting for consumers or governments to tell them what to do. A legion of early adopter companies are spearheading change and creating an extra competitive edge for themselves. For example, increasingly, many companies are moving from a single ‘P’ (profit) focus towards a 3P focus (profit, people, planet) and recognise their community role in creating wealth, supporting their local community as well as safeguarding the Planet for future generations. The apparel company Patagonia is an excellent example of this new thinking. Patagonia’s management has set ambitious targets, such as having 100% reusable, home-compostable, renewable, or easily recyclable packaging by 2025 (2).

This example does not mean that 3P thinking is mainstream yet across executive boardrooms of manufacturing companies. Much work remains to be done.

In the same vein, manufacturing companies already had a three-pronged approach, i.e., balancing risk, cost and quality of the products they manufacture. Now, Sustainability has become the fourth dimension. 

A Changing PLM Landscape

Changing a business to become more sustainable is not easy, as it requires a complex system change at the level of the team in our teams, our company and, the broader partner/customer ecosystem, even society. To avoid losing market share, many companies have started on the marketing side by creating a green image or adding sustainability to their mission statement (3). Can flying ever be sustainable or taking a cruise? Some companies will give you that feeling by letting you pay a little extra for carbon offsets.

The European Union recently agreed in early 2024 on legislation to fight greenwashing by pushing for extended consumer rights for transparency. In addition, it is advocating for a circular economy  (4).


Transparency will give regulators and consumers a means to decide if a company, product or service is sustainable.

The circular economy is a system change, one that is unmistakably connected with sustainability. The butterfly image from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that we have two areas to focus on. On the right side, the hardware side and various ways to prevent finite materials from becoming waste. On the left side, we see how we can deal with renewables, fuel and food. 


Businesses are facing significant change to develop profitable solutions that fit the circular economy. Moving away from the traditional linear approach of Take, Make, Waste to a circular approach involves many aspects.  


Starting with shareable products - mobility as a service - was a topic many startup companies jumped upon. Cities have been flooded by shareable electric bikes and scooters for sharing. Unfortunately, many of the consumers of these bikes and scooters do not have a sustainability mindset and see them as consumer goods that you dump after the ride.  In the Netherlands, the OV bike has become a success due to a strict rental system in cities where renting a bike makes sense for students and city visitors (5).

The product design and operations side of a circular product in the circular economy requires new aspects of product design. Serviceability, reliability, and upgradeability are essential, but reducing materials and emissions and using recyclable materials also make product design more complex.

Developments in the PLM space have recently focused on what is called implementing a connected digital thread and digital twin (6). In simple terms, this means that the product development process has become data-driven. When using these data to support sustainability, it is easier to measure a product's impact along the lifecycle, comply with regulations and customer requests and implement positive changes. 

Therefore, the PLM world needs to shift from linear to connected. Where historically, companies use a linear, coordinated approach, where disciplines work in their silos, sharing information when needed. The modern, connected approach allows organisations to work and interact with each other in multidisciplinary environments, potentially even with customers and partners. If the stakeholders in such an environment are motivated, these real-time interactions will lead to innovation and valuable interactions (7).

All these aspects require Systems Thinking, which is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts (8)


Implementing a systems thinking approach in a company requires a significant business change. The linear, discipline-coordinated approach will no longer work, and new ways of collaboration and best practices need to be discovered.


Here, curiosity is needed to go against the grain of traditional thinking/mindset, and it invites us to look at reality through a system lens.


Exploring Curiosity as a Management Principle


We define curiosity as the mindset to challenge the status quo, explore, discover and learn. 


Curiosity is often considered a trait linked to an individual, as exemplified by the incessant questions of children or scientists. Groups of people or organisations can collectively also be curious. Research from INSEAD studying the level of curiosity across the executive team uncovered that these teams are superior in two distinct ways: first, they are better at future innovation, and second, they are better at optimising their current operations. Curiosity on the executive team leads not only to future success but also to better short-term business results. Such teams create the perfect environment for their teams to thrive.

Change however is hard, and people are often left to their own devices; they often prefer to perpetuate the known past rather than invite an unknown future. Curiosity helps us lean into uncertainty. It encourages us to slow down and observe whether the status quo we hold dear is still relevant. Curiosity is the prime catalyst for change. It invites open questions.


Curiosity is the opposite of conformity.

Conformity to what is given higher importance than being open to what could be. Companies create guidelines and operating procedures that help efficiency but stifle innovation. In the early stages of product development, curiosity in teams is high, only to settle in a mindset of conformity once the contours of products and processes are solidified. 

For instance, in working with a leadership team of a global chemical company on curiosity, one of the participants raised the issue that in order to change a product, the quality manual also needed to be changed. The challenge of changing the quality manual was that, in his words, it required several hundred signatures. As a result, even when people knew that with evolving technologies, customer requirements and skills, it was tough to change their way of working.

In such an environment, organisational learning, including learning from mistakes, becomes difficult.  According to data from the Global Curiosity Institute, grown-up and scale-up companies are four times less ready to learn from mistakes when compared to startup organisations. 


Internal HR practices expose another dimension. Performance management and bonus remuneration of middle level cadres is often more a function of how efficient and predictable past processes have been managed (rather than innovated). According to the research of the Curiosity Institute, mid-level executives are four times less ready to admit that curiosity is a positive dimension for the organisation compared to their manager's peers, i.e., front-line managers and senior executives. In short, mid level managers are being rewarded for conformity.


However, when times are dynamic, the past is an imperfect guide for the future and rigid conformity makes us go backwards. Curiosity is the force that helps us rethink the present.

For organisations to adopt sustainable innovation in the required change in Product Lifecycle Management, openness and curiosity are key.

We propose a simple yet powerful framework to adopt a mindset of curiosity.

  • Permission - Allowing an Organization to be Curious. Rob Ferrone, one of the founders of Quick Release (9), a PLM Services company, introduced the curiosity mindset to the company by making it an explicit corporate value. By articulating the importance of curiosity, he enables his consultants to be creative and curious in their customer organisations. Permission is the first step.


  • Conscious Awareness - observe the status quo. Once permission is given, the stage of slowing down starts. In this stage, teams slow down and, pay attention and observe how the holistic system works. For instance how biases and unspoken culture patterns drive decisions. At this stage, data can be leveraged, albeit in a non-traditional way. In many organisations, there is a single focus on operational data as performance indicators at the expense of often even more insightful information. As observed at a global lower-tier automotive supplier, all KPIs were focused on operational performance and excellence, not being aware people were leaving due to a lack of allowing people to be curious about sustainability in their jobs. It is all about performance. New curiosity thinking prompted the CEO of a PLM company to change one question in his monthly reviews: “What are we not seeing in the data.” A simple question resulted in much richer dialogues rather than looking at a narrow set of data.

  • Intentionality, making it part of the organization. Once awareness clarifies the status quo, intentionality helps leaders decide what to improve and focus on. The Danish dairy company Arla realized rapid innovation steps in packaging, reusable plastic caps, and packaging designed for recycling.  Lego has projects working on non-fossil plastics with the same durability. 

Innovation on one side does not guarantee systems thinking overall. Tesla revolutionized the electric vehicle industry by creating more of a software system on wheels than an electrified vehicle. Their mechanical components were build on existing technology, and the batteries were based on Lithium-Ion technology—the same technology as used in the 1990s Sony Walkman batteries.



Developing and delivering sustainable products to the market will be a challenge for all manufacturing companies in the following decades. Besides a change in technologies and business models, organisations will need to learn and navigate into an unpaved future. Transforming organisations into curious enterprises combined with applying system thinking to all aspects of the business and the products will be crucial.


Do you want to learn more?


PLM                Jos Voskuil                             (

Jos Voskuil, TacIT, also known for his blog, has been active in the domain of PLM for over 20 years. Jos mainly serves as a coach, mediator, and “translator” between all stakeholders in PLM, from the business, methodology and technology sides. As a speaker at PLM conferences and co-founder of the PLM Green Global Alliance, Jos is explaining and coaching the importance of data-driven practices (from coordinated to connected) and their relation to sustainability



Curiosity          Stefaan van Hooydonk           (

Stefaan van Hooydonk is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute and author of the bestselling book The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto. An experienced global C-suite executive, Stefaan researches the topic of workplace curiosity in companies. He consults boards and leadership teams around the world on what drives and what enables individuals and organisations to show up curiously. He is a regular speaker around the world on the power of curiosity to benefit professionals, leaders, teams, and organisations.















May 2024

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