This week on The Modern Agilist, we had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Pereira and discuss flow engineering. Steve is no upstart and it shows. He’s been working in the Agile space for over 20 years and it has made him the value stream whisperer that he is today.
As a fundamental baseline, value streams have to do with visualizing and mapping program-level value and how it changes and flows through an organization. Wikipedia describes this science in the following way:
“Value-stream mapping, also known as ‘material- and information flow mapping’, is a lean management method for analyzing the current state and designing a future state for the series of events that take a product or service from the beginning of the specific process until it reaches the customer. A value stream map is a visual tool that displays all critical steps in a specific process and easily quantifies the time and volume taken at each stage. Value stream maps show the flow of both materials and information as they progress through the process.” - Wikipedia
Many agilists may be familiar with flow-focused thinking who have been exposed to it at the level of the team through Kanban for Scrum teams or the incredible work of Daniel Vacanti, author of Actionable Agile Metrics For Predictability but what comes after this? What’s the level of abstraction above this?
Create a Map
In order to answer this, we have to start by answering questions of scope and intent. The scope of value stream mapping is the start to finish sequence of activities that result in value to the customer. It all starts with the customer and is traced back through the activities of the organization. This type of perspective traverses all the possible activities of the org and is not restricted to the activities of a single team or department. Originally conceived in the context of manufacturing physical goods, its importance is only highlighted by the drastic increase in complexity of the modern world and shift to digital production. As the complexity of modern processes has drastically increased our practical visibility has diminished due to the immateriality of what’s being produced. More than ever leaders and thought leaders must adopt a comprehensive value stream mindset and perspective.
With the increase in complexity and diminished visibility, we also have more and more teams and individuals contributed to single deliverables. This means more blocking dependencies and all of these constitute risks if not managed effectively. The ultimate aim in all of this is to establish initial visibility (a map). Only after you have visibility, can you hope to identify and eliminate friction and waste. We are all trying to perform Marie Kondo magic on the value stream. This amounts to plucking the lowest hanging fruit first to get the biggest bang for our efforts.
Triggers and Prerequisites
When does this happen and who should do it? Solutions presuppose problems. Healthy people need no doctor. In the same vein, it's pain and friction that create the signal and prompt to an organization to do some value stream mapping. By the time an organization seeks to do this, they have at least some initial ideas of areas of concern and waste. Once the signal for action is sent, the prerequisite of safety must be established. People must feel that their job is not in danger but that this kind of endeavor will actually make them more effective in their work. One final consideration is that a strength of using an external expert is that they don't have a dog in the fight or a position to protect.
These are just some of the initial thoughts and ideas surfaced by our extensive talk with Steve on flow engineering. We dive even deeper across a myriad of issues over the course of the discussion. You can listen to the full interview on The Modern Agilist here.