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International Kanban Master Foundation

Steen Lerche-Jensen

5.4. How burdened is your Product Owner?

One other area that needs attention is the Product Owner’s management tasks; ranging from backlog grooming, roadmap organization, prioritization of user stories in a coordinating way which ascertain that there is a stable contribution in tasks on the development team at the beginning of every sprint organization meeting. The possible setbacks experienced by a product owner are not acknowledged by a lot of people. Tools such as story mapping are there to assist the Product Owner. However, offering visibility to the process of starting from a high-level set of themes or epics and narrowing them to be planned in particular releases and sprints tends to be critical to the shareholders to agree faster and harmoniously on an ongoing basis.

To understand the responsibilities of the PO fully, we need to also understand what lead time and cycle time are. Lead time is the average time that the team takes to complete the work from the customer’s point of view while cycle time is the average time the team takes to complete the work from the team’s point of view. Whenever a customer creates a request, the clock starts ticking as far as the customer is concerned. However, the tickets would not be ready for team members to start working on. The PO might have to get any clarifications needed, provide any acceptance criteria and so on and prioritize the tickets for team to start working on. Once these are done, tickets would be ready to work on. So the cycle time is measured as the time taken by team from start to completion. Normally Lead time is greater or equal to cycle time (usually greater).

I can list a few things as the responsibilities of a Product Owner, which are particularly important in a Scrumban team. These are in addition to other responsibilities such as conveying the vision and so on which are applicable in all situations:

  • Provide better focus to the team to work on immediate tickets
    • PO should understand the Backlog well and needs to have a clear idea about what kind of tickets are present in terms of size, time-criticality etc. Normally the backlog can be big when teams start adopting Kanban and over a period can be brought under control. PO plays an important role in managing the backlog and allowing team to focus on immediate priority items only.
  • Help in improving Lead/Cycle time
    • PO does this in couple of ways. A backlog, which is huge, may contain tickets, which may be waiting for a while in the queue for various reasons. PO should identify those tickets and get them completed or moved out of the Kanban board. This would help in improving Lead and Cycle times. Only a PO can take this kind of decision.
    • Reduce wait times due to customer dependencies. Many times tickets would be kept waiting in the Kanban board for customer validation to be completed. PO can help in contacting customers or identifying ways by which customers can expedite these tickets to improve the Lead/Cycle time.
  • Provide better visibility to team on priorities thereby improving work-intake
    • Tools such as JIRA used for implementing a Kanban board provide several features by which visibility can be improved. PO can make priorities highly visible to team by segregating tickets either by order of priority (say P0, P1, P2 etc.) or by separating tickets, which are required to be completed in the next 2 days, 3 days, one week and so on. At the same time, PO can remove the larger backlog from team’s view to reduce confusion. Backlog items can be taken to a separate Kanban board, which PO would only operate. This would give better visibility to team on priorities. This would help teams to implement a good work-intake process where team members can pick and work on tickets as well as share work.

It takes months for a PO to bring the backlog under control and provide clear direction on priorities etc. However, continuous focus on understanding the backlog and managing work from above aspects is very much needed for a Scrumban team too.

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