PM Essence
 
Whose Backlog is it anyway?Improving product quality breaking jinx

Kalyan Neriyanuri & Vinodkumar Paranji Srirama
A multi-platform, multi-architecture, multi-bit (64 or 32), multi-OS client software product with several millions of installations in the market is the biggest challenge to maintain for any product maintenance team. If there are constant customer escalations month on month and attention from management for wrong reasons, it becomes a day to day challenge to motivate the team and keep them focused. Addition to the above is growing backlog of incidents, defects and enhancements. Such inflow would make any maintenance team to lose sight of its primary goal 'serve customers'. 
 
This article describes a real case study of A large IT company Software Team that worked through the above challenges defining a strategic transformation plan, executing the same with out-of-the box thinking methods, being flexible as well as taking calculated risks. 
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The end result has got the team to work on more customer requested features when compared to that of defect fixes, which was on the decline with better customer satisfaction. While the journey started in September 2011 with 12 escalations, 170 Incident backlog, 80+ Customer Encountered Severity 1 or 2 defect backlog and the frequency of 18 month release, today the team has reached 2 escalations, 80 Incident backlog, 14 Customer Encountered severity 1 or severity 2 defect backlog and the frequency of 4 month releases in May 2013 with reduced monthly inflow. There is consistent acknowledgement from the customers as well as the management team on the positive impact the team has made for the IT company and the customers.
 
This project was executed by using Quality as the key driver, preparing a joint plan with the Support and Quality assurance team, adopting the agile principles in defect fixing process, releasing product patches in a regular intervals by taking necessary feedback and outsourcing the work that were nonstrategic.
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The problem of backlog
 
The support organization elevates incidents from the customers to the maintenance team, either when the defect is narrowed down to the product or when the support organization is unable to analyze the problem setup and require the lab expertise.
 
This results in a reactive model for the maintenance team, where the interruptions are driven by
a) Criticality of the defect
b) Urgency of the customer
c) Business implications for other organisations e.g., pending closure of sales deal of other products
Typically the backlog contribution can be categorized into different buckets.
Internal
Maintenance Team
Support team
External
External & internal factors contributed to the backlog. The team owned-up the backlog and took the problem head-on & prevailed. The leadership team analyzed the root causes and engaged with the team and worked through an amazing transformation. It had established them as “The team” that is in achiever's category and a role model.
 
Taking stock
 
When the “Quality Improvement Plan” was conceived the team had the following challenges:
 
1. Work life balance for the engineering team
2. The total number of Incidents in backlog
3. Escalation backlog
4. Total number of severity 1 and severity 2 defect backlog
5. Average inflow of the Incidents
6. Average number of resolved Incidents
7. Average inflow of Severity 1 and Severity 2 defects
8. Average number of defects resolved
9. Average number of hot fixes released per month
10. Elapsed time between 2 patches
 
Challenges were addressed through:
 
Bringing Automation in place
Agile Adoption
Problem area analysis
Quicker delivery of hot fixes
Reduced release cycles
Interlock with Support
Joint plan involving Maintenance, QA and Support team
Joint goals defined for the product Program Management
Governance of Quality Improvement Plan
Team Self-Tracking
Moving a member(s) to a different geography
Non-strategic work outsourcing
Leadership Training
 
Essence of this case study demonstrates that a management team with a very strong strategic intent to achieve a transformation from maintenance intensive organization to a customer feature centric organization is possible. It can be achieved through partnering with key stakeholders, identified meaningful measures, stringent program management and connecting with people. Owning the problem at hand, articulating the vision, defining the mission and execution from grass root level contributes to success. 
 
With the overall efforts that took 2+ years, the team could overcome majority of challenges that were at the time when “Quality Improvement Plan” was put in place.
 
Overall the team showed exemplary perseverance to stay together at tough times as the ride was not easy especially in the first few quarters in the project. It also helped to keep them focused on the execution, while the leadership team worked on the strategy, direction as well as stakeholder management. Communication played a key role here, Project’s management practice successfully bridged the expectation gap between team and senior management.