There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.
—Sam Walton, Walmart founder
Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.
Get closer than ever to your customer.
Customers are the ultimate buyer of every Solution. They are an integral part of the Lean-Agile development process and Value Stream and have specific responsibilities in SAFe.
Whether internal or external, customers are increasingly demanding. They have choices. They expect solutions to work well and to solve their current needs. They also expect their solution providers to continuously improve the quality of their products and services.
Moreover, engaged customers are integral to Lean-Agile solution development. They are critical to the solution and inseparable from the development process. They have specific responsibilities and work frequently and closely with Solution and Product Management and other key stakeholders to shape the Solution Intent, Vision, and Economic Framework in which development occurs. They have a strong influence on defining and prioritizing the solution’s development and are active participants in Program Increment (PI) Planning, System and Solution Demos, and Inspect and Adapt (I&A).
The customer is an integral part of Lean-Agile development and plays a critical role in SAFe. They are part of the value stream. Their support for Lean and Agile Principles and their active and continuous participation in solution definition, planning, demonstrations, and evolution are essential to a successful outcome.
In some cases, the customer is internal (ex., an IT shop delivering a supply chain application to the business). In others, the customer is external and is the buyer of a custom-built offering (ex., a government purchasing a commercial or defense system). In still others, the customer is a remote third party, part of a larger class of buyers. In this case, product and solution management must understand the marketplace and then generalize requirements to develop solutions that fill universal customer needs, providing an internal proxy for much of the development (ex., an independent software vendor selling a suite of products).
Summary of Responsibilities
No matter what type they are, customers must be engaged continuously throughout Agile solution development. Either in person or by proxy, they fulfill the following general responsibilities:
- Participate as Business Owner in PI planning
- Attend solution and possibly system demo; help evaluate the solution increment
- Participate in inspect and adapt workshops; assist in removing some systemic impediments
- Interact with analysts and subject matter experts during specification workshops
- Collaboratively manage scope, time, and other constraints with Product and Solution Management
- Help define the Roadmap, Milestones, and Releases
- Communicate the economic logic behind the solution and help validate assumptions in the economic framework
- Review the technical and financial status of the solution
- Participate in beta testing, User Acceptance Testing (UAT), and other forms of solution validation
The Customer Is Part of the Value Stream
The Lean-Agile Mindset extends beyond the development organization to encompass the entire value stream, which includes the customer. The type of value stream determines the context for interaction.
For internal IT, the internal customer is part of the operational value stream, as Figure 1 illustrates.
An example would be a marketing director who is responsible for partner enrollment workflow (the operational value stream). The partner is the ultimate end user of the workflow and is the customer. But to the development team, the marketing director and those who operate the value stream are the customers.
For those who build solutions for an external end user, the customer is the direct buyer of the solution, as Figure 2 illustrates.
In this case, the development value stream and the operational value stream are one and the same. The solution can be a final product that’s sold or deployed directly. In other cases, it may need to be embedded into a broader Solution Context, such as a system of systems.
Customer Engagement Drives Agile Success
Lean-Agile development depends on a high degree of customer engagement, which is much higher than our traditional development models assumed. However, the methods of engagement are different and are determined by whether the solution is a general solution—one designed to be used by a significant number of customers—or a custom-built solution—one built and designed for an individual customer.
Figure 3 illustrates the relative level of indirect or direct customer engagement in each case.
On the left side of Figure 3, the solutions developed must address the needs of a larger audience. No single customer is an adequate proxy for the whole market. In this case, Product and Solution Management become the indirect customer proxy; they have the authority over solution content. It’s their responsibility to facilitate external interaction and make sure that the voice of the customer will be heard, and that the organization continuously validates new ideas. Scope, schedule, and budget for development are generally at the discretion of the Business Owners.
Since it’s unlikely that any particular customer will be participating in regular planning and demo sessions, interaction is typically based on requirements workshops, focus groups, usability testing, limited beta releases, etc. The solution evolves through feedback from user behavior analysis, measures, and business intelligence to validate the various hypotheses. During PI planning, a group of internal and external stakeholders acts as the Business Owners, the ultimate internal customer proxy within a specific value stream.
On the right side of Figure 3, the customer is typically defining the solution while representing themselves. Product and Solution Management interact with the customer and provide daily development support. However, even though the customer is leading the effort, it is critical to establish a collaborative approach to scope and prioritization. This fosters incremental learning and exhibits a willingness to adjust the course of action as needed.
Active participation in PI planning, the solution demo, and selected specification workshops is required. This will often reveal inconsistencies in requirements and design assumptions, with potential contractual problems. This process should drive the customer and ARTs toward a more collaborative and incremental approach.
Demonstrating results of the program increment to the customer, in the form of a fully integrated solution increment, establishes a high degree of trust (ex., “These teams can really deliver.”) It also provides the opportunity to empirically validate the current course of action. Based on the measured predictability and velocity of trains, forecasting is significantly improved.
Transition toward an Agile Contract model will also help reduce the win-lose aspects of traditional contracts. One such model is the SAFe managed investment model, where the customer commits the funding for a PI or two, then adjusts based on objective evidence and incremental deliveries. This requires a fair bit of trust going in, but then trust is built incrementally, based on a continuous flow of value received.
Learn More Ward, Allen and Durward Sobek. Lean Product and Process Development. Lean Enterprise Institute, 2014.
Last update: 12 October, 2017