Service Delivery Manager (SDM) Role in Kanban: How to Hire for It


I’m asked often about the Service Delivery Manager (SDM) role in Kanban. Who should play this role? How do we introduce it in the organization? Where can we find the right people?


For the background, SDM is a term we use in the Kanban method to give a common name to a large variety of managers taking responsibility for some service, product line or project. SDM responsibilities include managing the service and improving it so that it’s satisfactory from its customers’ point of view.


There is a huge variety of professional services across many companies and industries. Therefore SDMs come in many different shapes and sizes, that is, various actual responsibilities, skill sets, seniority levels and pay grades. But their responsibility for some service is what they all have in common. So there is a pattern. We have a term, SDM, to give this pattern a name.


Chances are good the person you’re looking for to fill the SDM shoes already works in your company. You may need to recognize this responsibility informally or officially, you may need to promote them, to change their job title, or to hire for this role externally. Depending on your company culture and history, these modes may all play out in different proportions.


Here is essential guidance to help you find the right person for this role.


No Standard Job Description, Always Specific to the Job


Job descriptions of service delivery managers (SDMs) vary greatly and are highly contextual to the content of what the service is delivering. Consider the following examples.


  1. A pharmaceutical company Kanbanized their product development pipeline. The SDM of this service is the CEO of the company.

  2. A small group of UX designers delivers a shared service to several product teams. The UX team lead is the SDM.

  3. A company delivers automation software for some industry vertical. Inside the company, a 2nd level manager is in charge of several teams and coordinates them with several services and vendors. His/her job title is, for example, Director of PoS Technologies. The desired qualities include experience in software, management, and the business domain knowledge relevant to the vertical. This person is the SDM.

If you had to hire for these three positions, you can imagine vastly different job descriptions, evaluation criteria, and interview/search tactics. You’re going through a stack of resumes boasting ITIL certifications, hoping that one of these people has accidentally got a PhD in analytical chemistry. As soon as you imagined this, you can stop looking for a sample SDM job description.


Therefore, the largest part of the SDM job description will always be specific to the nature of the service. Fitness for the specific service will always be among the key selection criteria.


Leadership Skills


The next important selection filter is the leadership skills. Why do you want an SDM? Maybe because you want somebody to take responsibility for a service (ML2), make it better, good even (ML3), keep it that way in the long run (ML4).


(What are these things, ML2, ML3, and ML4? These are markers for maturity levels given by the Kanban Maturity Model. KMM defines these maturity levels such that organizations at each level can respond to a higher-order business challenge that lower-maturity organizations cannot. KMM also provides a roadmap to increase the organization’s current maturity level. What does Kanban have to do with it? In short, if we were to design Kanban systems inside a business, that would be very revealing of its maturity level.)


Well, the leadership maturity is a limiting factor for the organizational maturity. You need some altruistic qualities to achieve collaboration along the end-to-end workflow, unity of purpose (Einheit), and to make responsible decisions at the service’s commitment point. You don’t want to hire an ML1 individualist or an ML2 tribalist to become a barrier to higher maturity.


Kanban Maturity Model as a Guide

The Kanban Maturity Model (KMM) provides some orientation and decision filters as well. Here’s my guidance, very briefly, level by level.


The SDM role doesn’t apply at ML0 or 1. If you have to pursue an ML0–1 “digital transformation”, do worry about accidentally firing or imposing a professional identity change onto people you will later need as SDMs.


The SDM role appears at ML2+. For ML2, the SDM should be able to take responsibility for a service; define the service, its input and output in customer-recognizable terms; overcome fixation on org structure; overcome inertia created by team-level ML1 tools. This is what the job is asking, can your candidate do it? You can’t write this directly in a job description, but you need some interview tactic to detect fitness.


For ML3, look for two big tests. First, negotiating the commitment point — how well do they interact with customers? Second, managing the risks and delays after the commitment. Can your candidate do it?


For ML4, you’ll need organizational feedback loops connecting business outcomes to operational decisions. This will take some weaving of the social fabric to carry the information, and some mathematical sophistication. People are naturally inclined towards one of these types of things. Know who you’re hiring.


Summary

  1. The largest part of the SDM job description will always be specific to the nature of the service. Fitness for the specific service will always be among the key selection criteria.

  2. Higher-maturity, altruistic leadership qualities are key for this role.

  3. Use Kanban Maturity Model (KMM) as a guide. Derive more specific qualities you desire in your SDMs from your organization’s current maturity level.

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