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Best Practices for Incorporating Risk Management in Complex Product Lines

Managing software product lines in highly regulated industries is a complex, multi-faceted challenge. Due to the mass customization of products, there are more product variations than ever before. Many regulated industries nowadays that have wide areas of operation like medical technology, avionics, and automotive companies use software product line engineering because you can effectively leverage existing software assets and receive numerous benefits. But how does risk management fit into all of that? Read on to learn more about product line engineering and our best practices for effective software risk management across product variations that will not jeopardize your compliance efforts!


If you’re in the business of producing safety-critical software products or software-intensive systems, then you’re probably already familiar with the concept of Product Line Engineering. Product Line Engineering (PLE) promises a lot of benefits like cost reduction, shorter go-to-market times, and higher quality, but software developers are still understandably concerned about the initial increase of software and hardware development costs that implementing PLE entails. And while this approach does reduce the overall burden placed on the software development team in time, with less rework etc, there are still risks to consider – risks that can even be amplified due to the many product variants involved. As a result, effective Risk Management is a must for PLE, yet the two disciplines often seem incompatible and even incongruous. Keep reading for a quick PLE review and discover how you can effectively incorporate risk management in software engineering!

Learn more:

Product Line & Variants Management

Wait, what exactly is Product Line Engineering?

Before we dive into the benefits and challenges of PLE, let’s take a step back and look at how traditional engineering compares. With a traditional, product-centric approach, when a new product or system is required, engineers will find the most similar one that is available, create a copy, and adjust it to the new requirements, calling it a new product. This approach is commonly referred to as ‘clone-and-own’, and while it does technically reuse existing assets, cost and time savings only take place once and cannot be systematically replicated for scale. Then the new product goes along its own path and any savings that were made by the initial copying are lost along its new trajectory.

Product Line Engineering, on the other hand, is a method borrowed from the manufacturing industry. It is an efficient way to create a portfolio of related products by taking advantage of similarities that can be replicated, while also managing differences. In the PLE approach, the product line portfolio represents a single entity, rather than a collection of similar but individual products or systems. Think of hard-good factories which for a long time have been able to produce product lines with variants effectively, like shoe models of different sizes and colours for example. PLE applies the same concept to software engineering, considering the characteristics which can be replicated to be core assets. When implemented correctly, PLE can help organizations make significant improvements in production time, quality, and scale. That being said, there are some distinct challenges involved in getting PLE up and running.

Related reading:

Strategies for Efficient Product Line Engineering

The challenge ahead

Establishing a PLE project can seem quite daunting at first. There’s an upfront cost for preparing reusable parts, which makes some development organizations shy away from the idea. Another thing to bear in mind is that you will be planning, managing, testing, and analyzing the success of multiple products at once. This means the probability of risks will be inevitably amplified, unless you incorporate Risk Management into the process. And although Risk Management should be a given part of any software development process, these two methods can often seem at odds with one another. Not getting it right, however, can lead to project failure and noncompliance incidents you’d best avoid. Risk Management doesn’t mean that you will be a superhuman organization, able to prevent all bad things from happening. However, incorporating it effectively will allow you to reduce risks, provide response plans, reduce costs due to problems, improve product lifecycle decisions, and consistently satisfy customers, regulators, and stakeholders. Here are our top tips for incorporating a risk management approach into your product line engineering process:

1. Include Risk Management from the start

Start by appointing a Risk Manager, who will oversee the software risk management process as well as a contributing stakeholder for the PLE project from the beginning. This individual should take part right from the start in the PLE project, right from the Scoping and Requirements phase. This is when the other stakeholders will decide the different parts of the products, features, systems, domains, parts that can be reused, etc. The Risk Manager will use their analysis about benefits and risks as inputs for risk identification, assessment, and monitoring, and will work hand in hand with the Product Line Manager moving forward as well as manage whatever software risk management tools you are using.

2. Keep communication flowing

Once the Risk Manager has identified the likely risks, they should provide information about them to the Product Development team and any other relevant stakeholders. It doesn’t stop there though: back and forth communication is an ongoing activity that takes place throughout the product development lifecycle. The frequency of communication throughout the software development process really depends on what you are working on and the team you have, so it’s difficult to make any generalizations here. The important thing is that information continuously flows between the Risk Management efforts and the Product Development team so that they are up to date no matter what stage of production they are at.

3. Solid planning is everything

With the risks identified and shared with the team, it’s time for the Risk Manager to come up with a robust plan which will help the organization avoid, reduce, and solve any risks that come to fruition. They will need to take many factors into consideration like:

  • Variability/commonality
  • Reuse
  • Risk traceability
  • Dependencies
  • Maturity
  • Scalability

And many more. It is the Risk Manager’s job to identify threats that can turn into risks at the project level, and these can come from multiple sources like staff, processes, and the project itself. Based on this plan, the Risk Manager will need to come up with mitigation strategies that can solve potential issues, which should also be presented to stakeholders so everyone is on the same page if something does go awry.

4. Document, document, document

It is of vital importance to document the risks identified just as meticulously as every other step of the software development process. You need a database, platform, or tool which logs what happened, what actions were taken, and what lessons were learned for the future. This is useful for continuously improving the product as you go along, which is particularly important when you need to trace changes and fixes across a variety of similar products. But it is also paramount to have in place for compliance reasons. Doing this manually is unsustainable and you will need some sort of enterprise risk management software to help you be effective and scale along with the product line as it evolves.

Useful resource:

Intland Academy: In Focus: Managing Product Variants with Branching Training Session

5. Get the right tool support

The easiest way to combine efficient risk management with PLE is to use a comprehensive product management tool from the field of enterprise risk management solutions. Look for a solution that comes with workflow templates that can connect people, roles, and processes with ease for you. That way you can manage risk analysis, documentation, and reporting all on the same platform where the software development itself takes place – making compliance and quality assurance a much smoother process.

Optimize the delivery of complex product lines: codebeamer is a complete Engineering and Application Lifecycle Management (EALM) solution with all-in-one requirements, risk, and test management capabilities.

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