It was not until I started this article when I realized there was no such term “Kanban Product Manager” (at least Googling it didn’t show any respectable results). Cool, I have my own term in the Kanban world now 🙂 Not really sure either if there is a term called “Kanban product management”, but since there are product teams implementing Kanban, there should be. Right?
Kanban is very popular across software companies. Lately, it is gaining popularity across various industries, but since the software industry took the initial idea from Toyota and spread it to the knowledge work area, let’s assume that the Kanban product manager is typically a software guy.
So, what it is that Kanban product managers do for a living?
More often than not they will be building software or will be somewhat involved in the process of building software. I myself am such a guy and with this article, I would like to share the typical tasks (and sometimes chores) I do each week. With that, I hope to throw out fresh ideas to anyone having anything in common with Kanban and building software, and by that help “Kanban-product-managers-to-be”.
1. Talk to customers
The most critical part of the job is talking to customers. It is a very time-consuming thing to do but by far the most important one. As with the rest of the tasks, the workload varies a lot depending on the current priorities, but my personal target is to spend at least 30% of my time working directly with customers. This includes talking to people face to face, online demo sessions to present the new features of the product, phone calls to discuss enhancements in the tool, online sessions where customers demonstrate how they use Kanbanize (I love these by the way), calls to discuss issues and what not. Again, this is the most critical part of a product manager’s job and should not be sacrificed.
2. Replenishment of the work queue
Certainly, one of the natural and common duties of a product manager in a Kanban team is to work on the “To Do” queue replenishment. In other words, the primary task of a PM is to make sure that the team has the right priorities in place, that the work items (tasks, tickets, cards) are well described and that whenever team members have the capacity, they will not waste time figuring out what next to do. Depending on the context this may be a full-time job or a one-hour per week task. In my particular case, it’s unevenly distributed each month, but I probably spend a few days figuring out what the highest priority right now is, how exactly things should work, who shall we work with to get quality feedback and plan the approximate milestones. Honestly, I would love to do only that, but… duty calls.
3. Monitor KPIs
Another very important aspect of my job is to monitor and analyze a huge set of KPIs. Being in the SaaS business attributes to this a lot, but even if you are not “SaaS” you would still have to pay a lot of attention to metrics. New customers, most active customers, least active customers, churn, website visits, open customer issues, etc. Some would argue that website visits are a marketing job and customer issues are for the support folks to handle, but in my opinion, a successful product manager needs to track this information and should be able to read the numbers correctly. You can find more detailed overview of what metrics and KPIs one should monitor (especially in the SaaS business) here:
4. Talk to marketing, sales, and engineering
A product manager’s job includes multiple exchanges with basically any team in the company. Quite often, this part of the job takes as much as 50% (or even more) of my time.
One must constantly be in sync with marketing regarding the current marketing strategy as work items enabling that strategy often end up on the “To Do” queue and need to be prioritized. The feedback of the product manager, who is usually the domain expert, is very important and marketing would hardly ever be able to make a successful campaign without it.
The sales strategy must also be agreed with product management. Sales give input about their needs and guess what? They also end up on the “To Do” pile with the corresponding priority. When engineering starts working on some of these items, the PM is the one to translate the business case and draw the whole picture of how things should work.
5. Mentor others
Last but definitely not least, a product manager who has mastered the lean and Kanban techniques, should help others adopt them. This can happen in various ways – Kaizen meetings, training sessions, coaching or even blogging (what I am doing right now). As a big fan of George Carlin, I would rephrase one of his quotes: “Never underestimate the power of stupid smart people in large groups”.
What does this have to do with Kanban?
What is written above is pretty much true for every product manager out there and but not just for the Kanban managers. What are the special things about Kanban?
When talking to customers, it is wise to limit the number of customers you talk to (at a time) so that you focus the product on solving their particular needs. When you’ve managed to satisfy the small group of customers you move to the next small group, but you know what? Chances are that you’ve solved their issues already (when working with the first group). This is a basic principle in Kanban (limiting the work in progress) to focus your efforts on achieving fast and high-quality results.
When working with a team of developers it is extremely valuable to be able to manage multiple work items that get changed very dynamically. We at Kanbanize have created two mechanisms that help you to tackle this challenge. The first one allows you to link Kanban cards with relations like Parent, Child, Relative and Mirror. And the second one allows you to define rules to automatically move given cards to a given place on the Kanban board when certain events occur. More information here:
Regarding the work with Marketing and Sales, it is extremely important to implement the notion of Takt. If you don’t have the time to read this article, Takt basically means how frequently your customers are ready to accept the goods you produce. So, in order to produce goods with a certain Takt time (e.g. we at Kanbanize release a new version each month) everyone should be aligned towards that goal. If engineering is pushing towards the new release, but marketing and sales are focused on something completely different, probably the results won’t be that good, even if the new version is amazing. Simply put, the Kanban Product Manager should be an instrumental of synchronizing all departments and focusing them towards the common goal of the release.
The part about KPIs is simple. There are a bunch of KPIs coming from the lean and Kanban world and they are to be taken very seriously. Undoubtedly Cycle time is the number one metric to take care of, but cycle time alone cannot give you the full picture.
Being a Kanban Product Manager is a tough and very challenging job, but at the same time empowering and stimulating. Having those tips in mind, you could dramatically improve the efficiency of entire organizations so please feel free to brag about it in the comments section below.
Editor’s note: The article was updated in February 2018. Originally published in October 2014.