The Lean Product Backlog – Eliminate Waste

Posted on Friday 9th July 2010

Summary

Many product backlogs are too long, detailed and complex. This is in stark contrast to what the product backlog should be: a simple artefact listing the outstanding work to bring the product to life. This blog post discusses lean techniques to make the backlog concise and focussed by eliminating waste.

“We have 12,000 stories in our product backlog. How can we best groom it,” I was recently asked. Trying to deal with a huge product backlog is more common than we would like to think. Many product backlogs are too long, detailed and complex. This is in stark contrast to what the product backlog should be: a simple artefact listing the outstanding work to bring the product to life. It’s time to put any over-weight product backlog on a diet making it lean and concise.

Think Lean

Lean thinking aims to create a smooth, levelled flow of work by removing waste, minimising variation and avoiding overburden. Waste includes inventory and work-in-progress, defects, delays, and unused employee creativity. Examples of variation are frequent changes to the team and varying release cycles. Overburden occurs when people and resources cannot cope with the workload placed on them. If we want a lean product backlog, then it should contain as little waste and variation, and cause as little overburden as possible. This post focuses on eliminating waste. I will discuss minimising variation and avoiding overburden in a future post.

Eliminate Waste

Waste consumes valuable resources and makes it harder to focus on what’s important. To remove waste in the product backlog, reduce the inventory the backlog holds, avoid overproduction and minimise defects, handoffs and wasted creativity, as I explain in more detail below.

Reduce the inventory in the product backlog: Minimise the amount of detailed product backlog items and only include items in the backlog that are essential for creating a successful product. Ensure that just-enough high-priority items are detailed just in time for the next sprint planning meeting. As a consequence, product backlog items are progressively decomposed and refined – from sprint to sprint. Lower-priority items stay coarse-grained and sketchy until their priority changes.

Avoid overproduction – providing more functionality than users and customer need. Focus on the minimum functionality necessary to bring the product to life, and only list truly valuable items in the backlog. Have the courage to remove all other items from the product backlog. This keeps the product backlog concise and the Scrum team focused. If an item becomes important for a future version, it will re-emerge.

Minimise defects, handoffs and unused creativity by involving the team members and the stakeholders in grooming the product backlog. Jointly discovering and describing product backlog items avoids handing off requirements to the team. It ensures clarity of the requirements thereby reducing defects; and it leverages the creativity and knowledge of the team members and stakeholders. Jointly prioritising the product backlog ensures that technical risks and dependencies are accounted for. Problems consequently surface early, which prevents defects at a later stage of the project.

You can find out more about working with the product backlog effectively in my book Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love or by attending my lean thinking course that teaches product owners how to leverage lean techniques.