The key role of product managers is to translate customer needs into product features and those into business value. However, internal pressures, external stakeholders, and poor practices can keep managers from delivering products that customers want. How do we change this thinking to eliminate obstacles and make big improvements? GE Digital Product Lead Matthew Wells shares how lean principles for product management have transformed how we bring products to market. 

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On what are lean principles for product management

Matthew introduces us to the three aspects of lean principles, and the flow circle for mapping a workflow. After the basics, he ties it to product management and how adding lean principles to product gives a more firm direction.

“It is originally a process designed for improving operations on the manufacturing shop floor. In reality, it can be applied to every part of the business. That’s what we do at GE, we apply it to every part of the business. The fundamental thing about lean really is sort of three main principles: 1., how do I better derive value for my customers?; 2., how do I eliminate waste, things that aren’t helping bring value to the customer?; and 3., continuous improvement, always looking at how can we get better, never being satisfied with the status quo, and having a continual cycle of evaluating these things….

What does that mean for product management? The fundamental thing about applying lean to product management is that I liken it to saying I want to trade in the crystal ball for a calculator. When I started in product management, the methodology was kind of like a crystal ball. It was like, ‘Well, I’ve got to be able to see around the corner, I’ve got to be able to anticipate my customers’ needs and anticipate where the markets are going.’ Whereas what lean is all about is using data and experimentation in order to drive your product strategy and the execution of your product. 

It’s all about really focusing on the customer problem. This is where I think a lot of product management can go astray. Certainly in my career, I’ve seen a lot of product managers who are like, ‘I know what to do, I know the space, I know what needs to happen in order to make this product successful.’ I would call that an internal requirement because that’s something that’s driven by the business’s perspective, whereas lean is all about getting to the customers and really having them articulate the problems.”

On the Voice of The Customer

Matthew highlights how important the voice of the customer is. This is true for not only existing customers but also others who went with a competitor or haven’t become your customer just yet. This can be the difficult part of lean principles and can take a lot of well-worth effort to get those voices into your data. 

“The most important thing here is voice of customer. We often shorten that to VOC. 

In the past year, we launched a new program here. Initially, before we started that program, we had done a lot of VOC. We interviewed 75 different people from 62 different companies across many different persona types, whether they were people, who were actually on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant, whether they were VPs of operations, and everybody in between. Through that process, we built a user community and then we take that information. They give us tons of feedback. We ask structured questions, like what problems do you have, what are the challenges you’re facing in a particular area? We map all that feedback out and then we take that in in a data way because we got a lot of these little post-it notes now, and we’re grouping them into various areas to figure out what really are the problem groups and use that to identify what should we go try and tackle.

Learnings in this part of the process are that it’s not easy to solicit interviews. It’s easy to get your own customers, your existing customers, but we want to hear from non-customers, people who have gone with a competitor. To get those, you have to be cold-calling people on LinkedIn, going to conferences, finding ways to get to those people. The second big learning is that interviews are better than surveys. A lot of people revert to surveys; let me build a survey, and go send it to a gazillion people and get the data back. The issue with that is surveys are “yes, no”, like you’re getting an answer. The best part of a survey is the unstructured question, but the reason interviews are better is that you need to be able to drill down in the unstructured question. Because we go into interviews with structured questions, this skill of the interviewer to be able to effectively do the drill-down questions is really important. It is a learned skill, it’s not something that comes to a lot of people naturally. It’s something that you really got to practice.”

On Pivot versus Persevere for Eliminating Waste 

Matthew points the question to product managers: What is waste? This is an important aspect of being a product manager, to decide to pivot or persevere, to keep or to cancel.

“We’ve gone through the process of identifying value and mapping the processes and ensuring that as we build the product, we’re doing the right things, figuring out how to measure and evaluate, whether or not it’s working or not, but there is this key part about lean that is stopping unnecessary work. What is waste to a product manager? It is kind of interesting. I’ve talked about capital allocation, and that’s the high-level view about what waste is to a product manager, but how do you define poor capital allocation? 

You know, what our CEO likes to use the term ‘WIBNIY’, which is, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if’. I don’t know how many times over my career I’ve heard that from various customer input or sales input is, like ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we did this?’ As our CEO says, WIBNIY can be the death of a product manager, because if we do too many WIBNIYs and they don’t actually drive revenue, because again it goes back to it’s nice but it’s not valuable, that is waste when it comes to product management. 

As I said earlier, what we do is we do the regular reviews, then pivot or persevere. The way we run this is in a monthly cycle, and we’ll go through each of the assumptions of the business. We’ll say, this was the customer outcome, we validated it with a lot of voice of customer, so is this assumption still valid? Do we have any reason to believe that it is not? In certain assumptions, we will continue to do what we call four- to six-week cycle learning periods, which will say, this assumption is partially validated. We’ve talked to 10 customers, and they’re all saying the same thing, but maybe we should also do some further validation by asking more customers or we do a survey, for example. We keep doing those in these periodic cycles to continuously validate whether or not we should continue. If it isn’t, then we can pivot, change the purpose of the product, or we can cancel it.”

About the speaker
Matthew Wells GE Digital, VP Product Member
About the host
Arun Milton RBC, Senior Director, Product Management

Arun heads Product Management for Royal Bank of Canada’s Solution Acceleration and Innovation group where he leads a team of PMs that manage a portfolio of B2C and B2B products. He also heads RBC Launch, RBC’s innovation hub, where the focus is on rapidly experimenting and developing new products. In prior roles, Arun developed products for RBC's commercial lending business, building large-scale credit structuring applications. Arun has deep domain expertise in financial services gained working in corporate strategy and various business lines. Prior to banking, he has worked as a Management Consultant and as a Physician at different points in his career.

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