River with old mill stones in it

Too much detail might like having a mill stone around your neck!

Value streams are an important tool for process change. Value streams present the big picture, they are a system thinking tool. There are several ways practitioners mess up the big picture and therefore lose value when generating value streams. Two of the most common are:

  • Detail is the enemy of the big picture. Early in my process improvement career, I worked in a location charged with writing and running credit card processing software. We handled the entire value stream after customer acquisition. During my time there, the United States suffered a fairly nasty economic downturn. Efficiency and quality become incredibly important to hold on to jobs. It was an exciting time! One of the exercises we did was to generate a value stream map of our operation. As we have noted, value stream mapping follows the transformation of raw materials (ideas and requirements) into value. We ended up with somewhere between 500 – 600 little yellow sticky-notes on a whiteboard with lines running between them. My boss went back to Plano after facilitating the session and left us to figure out how to use the data. The level of detail was impressive – I wish I had a picture. The problem was that there was no easy way to operationalize the mess on the wall. Everyone involved (except the facilitator) was frustrated. It was not until we abstracted the data up to a higher level (basic transformations rather than steps) and separated out support functions like development that it was possible to see the inefficiencies in the flow of value. Diving into the weeds obscures the big picture.Useful Solutions: 
    •  Agree on the level of abstraction that will be represented on the map before you start mapping and aggressively protect that decision. If you have a facilitator they should lead this effort BUT it is everyone’s obligation to keep the work on track. Consider the beginning at the level of basic transformation. For example, order acquisition, order entry, coding, and others. At a basic transformation level it should be easy to see consistent patterns in the flow of work. If the workflow appears too random or haphazard you are either at too low a level or your workflow is really messed up (this is very rare unless the organization is in financial distress). Remember that after the picture is established the team can go back to develop a process map. 
    • Establish a timebox for the development of the map. Timeboxes help keep people out of the weeds. The facilitator should help the team go through a number of complete iterations during the timebox, increasing the breakdown each time until each piece of the map is at an equivalent level of granularity and represents basic transformations. Note: Different pieces of the map will reach their final level at different times.
    • Use a facilitator that is outside of the process.
  • Limiting the organizational scope of the Value Stream Map. Value streams represent the big picture of how an idea is transformed into value from a business point of view. In many circumstances, the big picture is outside of the control of those developing the value stream map. This leads to drawing boundaries and limiting the scope which can lead to a mismatch between the map and the goal of the exercise. A few years ago, I was hired to coach and facilitate a software development department after they had begun developing a value stream map (pilot and process). The development group (also known as R&D) was not on the value chain. They were a support function so there were some initial misperceptions of how the map would meet the organization’s goal. Once the goal was reframed to operational efficiency the exercise was useful and met their needs. The new goal was to find a way to improve efficiency so that people could be redirected to other work.  The original goal was to find ways to increase the value delivered to their ultimate customers. The scope of the map made meeting that goal impossible. The Scaled Agile Framework Enterprise (SAFe) describes these types of maps as operational value streams. Optimizing a support function in isolation can lead to local optimization that does not positively affect the flow of value to the organization’s customers. A local optimum can actually cost the organization efficiency and money. Curtailing the view to a specific part of the flow or to support areas outside of the flow can yield a jaundiced view of how an organization delivers value and ideas for change that might not improve the flow of value.

Useful Solutions: 

    • Decide on the goal of developing value streams before you start the exercise. Use the goal to evaluate the scope of the map. If you are not addressing the whole value stream or are focused on a support area and the scope conflicts with the goal, ask questions.  Questions might include:
    • Can improving this part of the value stream improve the overall value stream?
    • If we speed up work in this part of the value stream can the next step in the process actually use what we deliver faster? 
    • Should we increase the scope of the value stream mapping exercise?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, To do detail or not to do detail. That is the question. The answer is that we have to find a happy medium. Too much detail or too limited scope both end up robbing the exercise of value and can frustrate everyone involved.