A 90-Day Plan for Recovering Kanban-ers

Kanban software development methodology

There is growing unrest. As quickly as lean and ultra-lean approaches to software development have emerged, so has a nasty backlash. We see this daily as we talk with tons of product and engineering teams that are trying to build software that matters and be happy doing it. They are struggling. As one customer just secretly told me “we are recovering Kanban-ers.”

If you are not familiar with Kanban, let me quickly describe it for you. Kanban (meaning signboard or billboard) is a scheduling system for lean and just-in-time production. It is a system to control the logistical chain from a production point of view. Kanban was developed by Taiichi Ohno, at Toyota, to find a system to improve and maintain a high level of production. The Kanban Method was later added to as an approach to incremental, evolutionary process improvement for organizations and applied to software development.

The mid-sized business software company that is recovering from their 18 month Kanban adventure is an interesting case study in how incremental improvement approaches to software development can go terrible wrong when they overshadow the entire product development process. But to understand their story, you need to know why they grasped for Kanban in the first place.

They originally moved to Kanban out of good intent — they wanted to get software shipped and keep product and engineering moving forward.

Kanban looked like a savior because they thought it would bring greater focus to what the priorities were and eliminate the pressure of delivering against dates. They were hoping it would solve all of the following challenges:

  • Product management was unable to clearly prioritize requirements across the portfolio.
  • Engineering hard a hard time estimating required work.
  • Engineering would bog down when complexity arose and releases were late.
  • UX was in their own world.
  • Sales was having a hard time competing with more nimble competitors.

What they did not realize is that while product did start to come out slightly faster, they were building the wrong stuff and even replicating efforts across products. Kanban forced everyone’s head down into the minutiae, and while they definitely had a clearer view of the itsy-bits, they lost track of what mattered and where they were ultimately heading.

We often see this in technically-driven companies where the software development methodology takes over. It is particularly bad with lean and Kanban approaches that throw planning and the importance of time out the window.

Eventually, new product leadership was brought in, consultants were engaged, and Kanban was deemed a failure for the following reasons:

  • There was no product roadmap and the rest of the organization was blind to what was being delivered, when it was being delivered, and why it mattered.
  • Incrementalism ruled the day which led to over-focus on enhancement requests from existing customers.
  • Engineering and product management employee churn increased.
  • Sales was still losing deals.
  • Thought leadership in market was slipping away.

The new team immediately went to work and set a 90-day plan to get back on track. They created a simple framework to help both the product and engineering teams hit the reset button and ensure that vision and strategy bridged through the roadmapping process. Here are the simple steps they took in the first 90 days:

Completed buyer and user personas and mapped the customer experience
This grounded the entire team in the customer — his challenges and motivations and how he wanted to use the product. It virtually brought the customer to life and helped everyone better understand the customer in his entirety.

Set vision and goals per product
Once the customer was well understood, he was placed at the center of a larger assessment of the market, competitors, and the company’s own capabilities. This resulted in a clear view of where the company was strong and differentiated in market. And it made it easier to set a vision for where they should take the product. As part of this phase, success markers were also created by product to ensure they could measure how the products were doing over time.

Created roadmaps
Customer and market insight led to a product vision which led to high-level roadmap plans. The roadmap plans provided cross-product transparency, coordination, and clear understanding of investment tradeoffs. It also provided insight for the rest of the non-technical organization that desperately wanted to know what they needed to market, sell, and support.

Early indicators are that the company is gaining momentum and product and engineering is performing well. Product has embraced it’s new levels of responsibility and accountability and is providing well considered requirements in a timely fashion. And If you are curious about the engineering team, the company continues to leverage agile approaches to getting work done. But this is now done in the context of customer insight, vision, and a roadmap — a strong belief that “dates matter.”

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap and marketing planning software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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