Emante Services
Sustaining Engineering and
Customer Support

Ensuring Product Quality

Most technology companies are committed by their customer maintenance
agreements to provide timely resolution to critical product defects. Also, it
probably comes as no surprise to know that working and stable products are
received much more positively in the marketplace than those that aren't.

Product Sustaining Support can be defined as correction of post-release
defects, incompleteness, documentation, website information, marketing
materials, or any other issues that are directly tied to product functionality or
quality.   

Sustaining Engineering is the term for the development engineering function
that delivers resolutions to product sustaining issues.  In short, it means that
the engineering organization is required to do something else to a product
after it’s been released – whether provide assistance, documentation, or
make physical changes.  

Obviously, product sustaining issues have to be first identified before
sustaining engineering resolutions can be invoked.   The
Customer Services
and Support Organization
handles this part, along with more than a little help
from the customers who contact them each day!

Section 10 of the
Support Center Practices certification standard is devoted to
“Research and Development Interface” with the support center.  Since the
R&D interface is on the “back end” of support delivery, and is also shared
between the management of at least two functions, this certification section
is still somewhat peripheral and weighted less heavily than the others which
focus on the fundamentals of support services delivery.  However, at the
same time, we also recognize that fostering a rich and open connection
between support and R&D organizations is critical for satisfaction of the basic
corporate obligation to make today’s products work.  Additionally, if the
support and sustaining engineering feedback loop can be evolved into a tool
for true organizational learning, then a significant strategic advantage is
gained by making tomorrow’s products not only reliable, but designed better
overall.  

In the long term, achieving excellence in the support/sustaining engineering
interface might be the most strategically beneficial thing you ever do for your
company!

Perspectives: Ad-Hoc versus Scheduled

Sustaining engineering is sometimes represented by dedicated groups that do
nothing else, but more commonly this is a task shared across engineering
groups who also have new development chores which compete for resource
priority.

Development engineering operational perspectives typically center on
accurate scheduling, resource management, and timely delivery of products.  
A particular challenge for development managers is the readiness and
resource planning for product sustaining activities, which tend to be driven by
ad-hoc emerging customer requirements and are by definition “unscheduled”.  
The customer support function is organized to flexibly manage these types of
interrupts, but typical development engineering organizations tend to be less
so.

Recognizing and understanding this natural difference in perspectives is
crucial to building a successful cross-departmental interface.  Generally, the
key to improving an engineering organization’s future defect resolution
performance is to build more time and resource flexibility into the
development and Q/A project schedules.  The key to success in the support
side of the interface is to better understand the engineering process
sequence for fixing defects (reproduce, code, build, unit test, regression test,
deliver) along with the dynamics and constraints of the resource schedule for
doing so.  This way, the expectations set with customers are informed and
reasonably set in the context of “product change risk control.”  

Bottom line is that the product sustaining negotiations between the two
groups are made most effective by focusing the dialog on the specifics of
project resource scheduling, risk control, and the various trade-offs and
impacts!   

More than Fixing Bugs

As technology companies expand product lines and deploy products to more
complex environments, the challenge to both technical support and
development engineering organizations is compounded.  Evolution of
enterprise IT infrastructures and their attendant complex integrated
environments challenge a vendor’s commitment to sustaining engineering
beyond the basic break/fix activity of yesteryear.  The emerging challenges
include:

    •   Identification and correction of product defects in multi-vendor
    integrated environment

    •   Building, testing, and delivering hot fixes, patches and service packs
    against complex product sets

    •   Necessity for development engineering participation in
    troubleshooting customer scenarios

    •   Solving integration, compatibility, and configuration problems with
    external technologies

    •   Managing technical issues with development partners

    •   Defining best practices for product deployment in customer enterprise
    environments

    •   Training, support, and consultation for implementation partners

    •   Training, support, and consultation available to internal staff

    •   Improving staff skills on product environment technologies

All of these factors increase the need for true collaboration between support
and engineering departments.  The support team improves their ability to
define and prioritize more complex systems issues; the engineering staff
becomes more aware of “real life” customer challenges and technology
considerations beyond the narrow scope of individual development
assignments.  Beyond the success of day-to-day collaboration, a real long
term benefit is achieved if new organizational knowledge is gleaned from the
activity and then plowed back into the product, documentation, and
knowledge management infrastructure.   

Have the lessons learned from your last several big collaborative adventures
with the engineering department been documented?    

Product Supportability Requirements

A primary objective of organizational learning is to “make things easier next
time.”     Making improvements to future products and documentation
requires that written requirements be submitted for consideration to the
product lifecycle planning process.  Here are some recommended topics for
converting sustaining engineering lessons learned into written supportability
requirements:

•        Support tools: verification, versioning, diagnostic analysis
•        Upgrade scenarios
•        Product deployment and change management – risk containment
•        Interoperability – compatibility and dependencies
•        Error messaging

Crafting clear supportability requirements and then successfully advocating
them for future releases will improve customer satisfaction, loyalty, product
quality, and reduce internal costs.

Management Reporting

The primary management tool for understanding sustaining engineering and
support impact is open reporting that summarizes defects by type across all
product lines and versions.  Ideally, such reports distinguish between defects
discovered in the various phases of product development and rollout: review,
unit test, system test (Q/A), and those discovered by customers.  Defects
discovered by customers are enormously more expensive to correct than
those discovered during the development process, so it makes sense to keep
the number and magnitude of these issues very visible to management
throughout the company.

Summary

Successful sustaining engineering operational practices integrate the R&D and
support organizations to achieve a complete product sustaining process
management model.  Granted, this is not always easy to accomplish, but any
progress made in this area is likely to reduce internal chaos, inefficiencies,
and stress… and at the same time provide significant value to customers!

Mike Bourn
Principal, Emante Services
mbourn@emante.com
www.emante.com

(Article originally published in the SCP Insider Newsletter, August 2005)
www.servicestrategies.com