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Agile Project Management with Kanban: Adapting from Waterfall

  • 3/16/2015

Engaging with customers

Traditional Waterfall teams typically engage with customers during planning (before work on the release begins), every one to six months at the end of stabilization for each milestone (perhaps as part of a preview program), and during final release stabilization (often as part of a beta program).

As experienced engineers know, customer feedback is invaluable for specifying, implementing, and validating product improvements. Customer engagement with traditional Waterfall teams is limited because the product is usually too buggy or incomplete to use. Customers can’t provide actionable feedback when they can’t use the product. Instead, customers must wait until the end of stabilization periods, when the product has the fewest-known bugs.

In contrast, Kanban provides an opportunity to engage with customers at whatever cadence the team or its customers finds most convenient, including continuously with customers who are onsite. Kanban enables this because when a task is through validation, it’s ready for production use.

Naturally, you want to try out product improvements with a limited number of customers first, and gauge their reactions, before publishing those improvements to your entire customer base. One common approach is to first have the entire product development team try the latest version, then share it through an early adopter program, then publish it to a broader preview audience, and then finally release it to all your customers. (I describe an example in the following “Inside Xbox” section.)

The customer feedback you get along the way can be used to hold back changes that don’t work, adjust designs, reorder pending work, find subtle or rare bugs, fill gaps in usability scenarios, and expand features in areas that customers love. Since Kanban limits work in progress (small batches), it’s easy to adjust to customer input within days.

To take advantage of the customer feedback opportunity, you need to establish a preview program, an early adopter program, and a way for the entire product development team to try the latest version. Here are some possibilities:

  • Many traditional Waterfall teams have beta programs already. You can repurpose your beta program as a preview program.
  • To establish an early adopter program, you can engage the most active members of your beta audience or hand-select key customers and offer them early adopter status as a perk.
  • To expose the entire product team to the latest builds, follow the steps I outline in Chapter 6.

Soon, you’ll be enjoying greater confidence, higher quality and usability, and more delighted customers. There’s nothing quite like engaged customers providing actionable feedback on working products.

The last, and arguably most critical, step to ensure that your team and your management commit to Kanban is to measure the great results you’re getting, and then celebrate your success. That’s the topic of the next section.