Role of the Product Owner in Kanban teams

Kanban is less prescriptive than Scrum and does not specify roles such as Scrum master or Product Owner. Sometimes there is a role of Board Owner but it is not really a Product Owner. Also no ceremonies such as Planning, Retrospective or Backlog Refinement are prescribed. The goal of team members is to get all the incoming work done as quickly as possible. The work itself comes randomly and is picked by team members as and when they are available to pick the next ticket. So it is not the typical planned deliveries that a Scrum team does and that way a Kanban team ideally should have a small backlog if the team is balanced to handle the demand.

That being the theory part of it, things are very different in reality. Many teams start their Agile journey using Kanban as it best suits the nature of work they do, which is support work. And support work cannot be done in a planned way with weekly or fortnightly deliveries and also as what work comes in a day is not known, Scrum is not very well suited for such teams and thus they end up using Kanban as the very first step in their Agile journey. And in my opinion, a team which adopts Kanban is more mature than an Agile team. So the teams find it very difficult to embrace this change and that is a big challenge in the industry that I have seen in my experience. In such situations we typically suggest a Scrumban model where some aspects of Scrum such as Scrum Master role, Product Owner role, a Retrospective etc. are prescribed. Another challenge that such teams face is that when they start adopting Scrumban they might already have a huge backlog piled up over a period of time. Then Backlog management becomes a big challenge by itself. Hence the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master become very important. Here I discuss a bit about the role of a Product Owner in such teams.

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. But 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 also 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 of time 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. This kind of decision can be taken only by a PO.
    • 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 so as 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 so as 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.

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

What do you think?

5 Responses

  1. Good article but still need deeper insight in terms of
    1. How often PO should order the stories
    2.Do we really need PO for kanban not scrumban

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