If you work in IT, then you may have heard of DevOps, Scrum, and Agile – but have you ever heard of Value Stream Mapping? If not, I’m not surprised.
The acronym “VSM” seems to be unreasonably elusive and unrecognized in the modern world of DevOps and Agile. I’d like to shed some light on this simple, three-letter term in the hopes of helping other teams and organizations who might be struggling with their DevOps, Agile, or Cloud migrations and transformation journeys.
In this post, I will be talking a bit about the little-known (or little utilized – at least in IT) practice, concept, and art of Value Stream Mapping.
Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a specific process of information gathering, data analysis, and action planning, intended to help organizations build a fly-wheel of continuous improvements.
The information gathered during a value stream mapping exercise is expected to highlight the status, boundaries, and limitations of various business processes throughout your organization. This information may come from many sources. These data sources might include (but are not limited to) system logs, e-mails, documentation, and ticketing systems. Event monitoring systems, online surveys, or even in-person interviews with members of your team can be used as the starting data-set, or initial input into your VSM. A VSM Diagram evolves as you iterate upon it’s development, and the development of a VSM is a cross-functional, collaborative effort.
VSM exercises, or rather – the process of information gathering that may be involved in the creation of a Value Stream Map, can sometimes seem probing, invasive, or even over-prescriptive to some teams. This is because the purpose of a VSM is to highlight wasted time.
The purpose of Value Stream Mapping is to understand how long it takes to get things done. This understanding can then be leveraged to build strategies for continuous improvement throughout your organization. Value Stream Mapping is a method of highlighting and resolving issues around your production software deployments and product delivery cycles, based on hard data. The goal is to shed light on the reasons for these issues, which may not be readily apparent to your team. This approach is in contrast to traditional IT planning, which is likely to be based on high-level assumptions, opinion, or perceived expertise. Traditional IT planning often fails to take into account the morning after, or “day 2” considerations, such as code maintenance, monitoring, or other operational concerns that can quickly become unmanageable if left unmaintained for any lengthy period of time.
VSMs are a critical component of real DevOps and successful modern software delivery. This includes software service delivery, and scalable cloud infrastructure development. The problem, and the reason why you may not have heard of it, is because it takes quite a bit of effort. A lot of honesty. And, a significant alignment and understanding of organizational objectives, goals, processes, and technical debt.
Not only is this effort required horizontally across a given organization, but also vertically, from top leadership down through to every team involved in providing value (which should be every team, period).
There is a lot of honesty and humility required in doing a value stream mapping exercise correctly, and sufficiently, in order to realize it’s many benefits. The topic can be met with criticism, doubt, and aversion. This can be a sign of some important changes that may be needed in your organizational culture.
This aversion may be communicated as a scoping problem, with initial feedback like “this will take too long, and we have a lot of other important work to do right now.” Or “other teams are not likely to buy into this.” If any particular team or business leader does entertain the idea, then the fly-wheel could start spinning faster, sooner. For example, in smaller teams and organizations, interest could build quickly if those teams share a similar mindset. You might be able to quickly show the benefits of the exercise.
Typically however, and especially in larger organizations, follow-up actions to execute or iterate upon a value stream mapping exercise will fall short. Advocacy will die down, and the excitement around the benefits of doing the exercise could easily diminish or disappear altogether. This would not be intentional, of course. It would happen among the flood of day-to-day e-mails, production incidents, and organizational changes that will inevitably occur. Teams could very well end up right back where they started.
Organizations are treading water with projects and timelines. Development and operations teams are often barely able to keep up with the flow of incoming work. Cross-functional team requests can take unreasonable amounts of time to get completed. However, once it starts to become a pattern, your teams may begin to become desensitized to those issues. Wasted time would become the norm. This is when all your efforts around DevOps and Agile transformation would start to regress.
Software rot begins to occur. Environments become more inconsistent, and projected deadlines and expected completion dates become a pipe dream. Everyone involved will eventually become demotivated, and it will always be someone else’s fault.
All of these processes and expectations can be improved, but you can only improve what you measure and consider carefully. This is precisely the reason for doing a Value Steam Mapping exercise, to identify and eliminate waste and to reduce idle time within your teams and across your organization.
Today, with our need to work and communicate remotely more than ever – our technology infrastructures are more critical than ever before. When there is significant social and economic uncertainty, idle-time waste remains, and continues to erode the productivity, spirit, and joy of teams. These teams could instead be working on projects that are new, exciting, and that adds a lot more value to the organization. Instead, developers and operations engineers waste a lot of time. For example, waiting days for a manual approval after a manual web form submission, before you are allowed repeat a process you’ve already done a hundred times.
Technology changes rapidly. Skilled workers will always be needed to either use new tools and technologies, or to assist in the transition to newer platforms in order to leverage those newer capabilities in shorter cycles of time. These changes do not have to be feared. They can be embraced with the right mindset and motivations.
Value Stream Mapping is a way to identify masked impediments within your business processes. If done correctly, every process (automated or otherwise) within your organization can be reviewed, understood, and validated. A clear plan of action can be crafted with the goal of improving the speed or quality of each time-consuming process or function. The results would be measurable, and the impact significant. You would then be driving your priorities with data.
Driving your organization with a VSM is like spinning a fly-wheel. The generated benefits can be exponential. The more you iterate on it, the more you get out of it. The idea really is that simple, but what about the actual practice?
There is some freely available information online about Value Stream Mapping. One of my favorite references is from Lucid Chart. I encourage anyone interested in improving the way they work within and across IT teams to research the topic independently, and to start championing the idea within your respective group or organization.
Of course, it does take a certain perspective and experience to guide a VSM mapping exercise through to completion while ensuring it returns real, measurable value over both short and long term planning horizons. A VSM exercise is not just a project. It is a mindset shift, and a cultural change.
VSM can’t be driven by leadership in a top-down approach. It also cannot work without the understanding and support of organizational leadership. The only way it works – the only way it will stick – is if everyone in an organization is committed to a real “agile transformation”. It is only then that the effort will begin to bare fruit. The organization could benefit significantly as a result.
However, it only works if we are honest with ourselves, and honest with each other about the real bottlenecks in our delivery processes and paths to production.
Lets not talk about scalability and future-proofing if we can’t yet be certain when the next release will hit production and be generally available. If processes are too overwhelming, manual, or prone to delays and communication breakdowns, then you are working hard to maintain your business processes – instead of having those processes work hard for you.
Let’s try to change that.
When it comes to advocacy, the championing of an idea – your position or title does not really matter.. especially if the idea is a good one. Right now you may be thinking about inefficiencies you’ve identified throughout your own organization. You may be thinking that no one in your organization really wants to put this kind of effort into being so transparent. I believe this not to be the case.
I honestly believe that organizations do want to leverage tools like Value Stream Mapping to eliminate waste and improve efficiencies. The problem is that they don’t know how. No one in your leadership may even be aware of VSM as a technology business planning tool. If they are aware, perhaps they haven’t considered it in the context of the work they are currently doing. The seed just needs to be planted. That is where you come in.
If you would like to learn more about Value Stream Mapping, and how it may help better your organization, feel free to connect with me and to share your challenges, experiences, and perspectives. I would love to hear your story!
Be well, be safe, stay positive, and do the thing!
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This article has also been published on LinkedIn.