Guest Column | October 21, 2020

Value Stream Archaeology: Excavating Your Project Organization For Flow

By Lee Reid, Sr. Value Stream Architect, Tasktop

 Value-Based Assessment & Contracting: What Needs to Be Done?

Enterprises have embraced many different approaches to master software at scale. Yet no matter what methodology trends and transformations we have utilized in our respective organizations over the years, our value streams, like ancient trade routes, have persisted. It is within these value streams—the sequence of activities an organization undertakes to respond to a customer need that results in the delivery of value to the customer—that we can unearth the secrets into what impedes the flow of value. The emergence of data-driven value stream management (VSM) enables us to excavate our project organization to chart out the best routes for our products to meet market needs faster.

The Elusive IT Value Stream

Like the pathways, waterways, and roadways that we have used to exchange valuables for centuries, there are value streams everywhere. Yet for many years, product value streams in software delivery have been submerged beneath the rubble of projects and processes. They are often hard to see because we’ve been taking a project approach to improvements, measuring siloed activities (sprints in Agile, number of deployments in DevOps) instead of business outcomes (faster time-to-market, revenue, customer retention, employee engagement). Consequently, we have not focused on the end-to-end set of activities as a whole; it’s as if a network of vines and overgrowth have obscured our view into the work that creates and protects value. 

If your enterprise delivers a product or service, then, even if you haven’t directly acknowledged it, there always has been a value stream. At times, we have had to put on our Indiana Jones gear, work with bits and pieces of old notes and theories to find them. But now, influenced by Lean, we are identifying our value streams, learning to see where we may have bottlenecks and waste, learning to improve flow across value streams, and learning to scale our improvement practices across our portfolios. 

The Rise Of Lean In IT

The concept of a value stream and VSM comes from Lean thinking, originated by methods applied by Henry Ford, refined by Toyota with the Toyota Production System, influenced by W.E. Deming, and now flourishing beyond physical manufacturing. Lean is all about establishing a culture of continuous improvement and learning through experiments to continuously accelerate the delivery of value to customers. The key principles of Lean are simply:

  • Listen to the voice of the customer
  • Identify the value stream
  • Create a pull system
  • Make it flow
  • Seek perfection

In the past 20 or so years, these Lean principles have been adopted by many industries and transformation efforts within enterprises. The attraction lies in the simplistic yet elegant nature of the practices, the empowerment of team members to make positive change, and the focus on accelerating end-to-end flow. 

There is a growing body of literature that is bringing Lean practices to the attention of IT practitioners. Authors have elevated the concept of the value stream similarly to how archaeologists have rediscovered and charted out ancient trade routes (many of which remain in use today) to deepen their understanding of the world.

Taking Value Stream Mapping To The Next Level

Many organizations have used a Lean tool, known as value stream mapping, to break through local optimization and siloed thinking to better understand the end-to-end delivery of value. These sessions are quite valuable and often lead to a much better understanding of the current state of our processes, where we have impediments, and ideas for experiments we might explore to improve. 

However, because of the time required to execute a thorough value stream mapping session and the difficulty of scheduling logistics, the frequency of such sessions is usually low (even more so in the current remote work world). Furthermore, in the case of software delivery value streams, it can be very challenging to produce objective data when analyzing the current state because of the complex nature of work. 

Software delivery is very creative and nonlinear knowledge work, and information about the work is scattered across heterogenous toolchains comprising discipline-specific tools. It’s common for large-scale software delivery organizations to use multiple core collaboration tools for portfolio management, design, enterprise agile planning, testing and ITSM, and dozens of additional tools to support the CI/CD pipeline and operations. The creative work that is captured by the toolchain is key to objectively measure the flow of value for software delivery.

Data-Driven Exploration  

A prescriptive set of metrics drawn directly from the tools we use in IT software delivery can provide us with the visibility we need. The insights inform us of what’s going on and guide us to where and how to explore to find opportunities to optimize the process.

These metrics must be able to track the flow of business value in software delivery in a way that both the software delivery organization and the business understand. These overarching metrics should focus on value creation (such as features and defects) and value protection (such as risk and debt). The metrics tell us where work is held up and provides the visibility to unlock the capacity to accelerate time-to-value. 

Rather than gather the software delivery process actors into a room twice a year for a value stream mapping session, teams in the value stream can use these real-time metrics to visualize their flow anytime, pinpoint where they have bottlenecks, and track the impact of experiments. They can exercise the Lean Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle of continuous improvement knowing that they are making solid data-informed decisions. 

We’ve seen these metrics drive better investment decisions that were not obvious with team-based metrics. For instance, a leading U.S. healthcare provider was suffering from slow feature velocity. While the natural response would be to invest in developers, their value stream analysis showed that bottleneck was not actually in development but upstream in work intake. Realizing they had invisible wait states, they were able to use the data to make the case to add additional states to the development tool and convince the CIO to hire more business analysts instead.

Your value streams may have been buried under project management artifacts for years. It’s time to abandon digging through the rubble to adopt a more sophisticated large-scale excavation. To transition from a product operating model focuses on flowing value across the teams that carry out work that creates and protects business value. Understanding how to unlock flow can supercharge your response and adaptability to maintain a competitive advantage.