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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is software product management waste in the Lean sense?

I became a big fan of Lean when it was adopted by the product development organization at a former employer. Leadership hoped the benefits that had historically been realized in manufacturing would translate to our business. As a matter of fact, a consulting organization belonging to one of Lean’s poster children was hired (likely at unimaginable expense) to help plan and execute the Lean transformation. One of the things I love about Lean is its focus on creating customer value. A Lean organization looks at all its activities and classifies them as creating direct customer value or generating “waste”. Some of Lean’s 7 Wastes are fairly obvious. Introducing defects into our products, for example, obviously doesn’t generate customer value. Other types of waste, like inventories, can be counter-intuitive as you begin exploring Lean.

Waste is a particularly tricky concept when Lean is introduced as the term is value-laden and can be perceived as threatening by some (remember this when you read the next paragraph). No one wants to think their work is waste, but to realize the value of the Lean perspective we need to put these preconceptions aside and take an honest look at what we’re doing to determine if or how it contributes to customer value. Lean acknowledges that some waste cannot be avoided, so called “necessary waste”. Identifying necessary waste encourages us to manage our investment in related activities carefully. Once again, an activity’s being wasteful does not mean that it’s not valuable. In practice, some waste is absolutely indispensable. For example, most large corporations would have extreme difficulty operating without an HR function. However, if you think about it, the customers of most software companies would not be interested in directly paying for the outputs of the HR department; they are interested in buying valuable products and services.

I take a pretty hard line when it comes to waste. In a recent conversation with another Lean zealot (coming from a development perspective), we agreed that based on the Lean definition, software product management is waste. I know that statement may seem simultaneously radical, threatening and obnoxious, but I don’t think it’s unfounded. While we agreed that the role of SPMs is important or even critical in mosts contexts, we believe most customers wouldn’t directly pay for the things we SPMs deliver, e.g., specs, roadmaps, vision, good will. Customers pay for working software solutions, which is what development delivers. I can point to software products that made it to market and were even successful without SPMs, but none that were delivered without development. To be a bit more precise, I would categorize SPM as necessary waste.

Once again, I am NOT implying that SPM isn’t important or even critical -- it’s what I’ve built a career doing and I’ve never been more committed to it or passionate about it. However, the truth is that customers don’t value my backlog much; they pay for functioning software that solves their problems. Although I feel I play a critical role in delivering the solutions they want, I clearly don’t directly create what they pay for. I find that the idea of waste as it relates to SPM probably has the intended effect in my case: it keeps me focused on customer value and grounds me with respect to the expected level of investment in SPM.

This post will almost certainly not sit well with some and that’s OK. I think it’s valuable for all professionals to think deeply about what they do and who values it. This type of soul searching can be particularly important for product managers and is something our community probably needs to spend more time doing.

So what do you think? Is SPM waste in the Lean sense?


  1. Yeah dear GregPrickril, I really agree with you .. for all of them there are a lots of company established that can help all of them in reducing the wastage and help in moving tend from downward to upward slope.Really nice and informative blog.
    5s supplies
    Lean Products

  2. This type of message always inspiring and I prefer to read content, so happy to find good place to many here in the post, the writing is just great, thanks for the post.
    Product Consulting