Value Stream Mapping: the Best Way to Kick off Continuous Improvement

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Inspecting the way we work is a powerful tool that enables continuous improvement. Agile project management emphasizes the importance of empirical learning for optimizing value delivery flow. Even though most teams understand they need improvement it’s hard to figure out how to kick off the learning process. As for me, the best way to trigger learning and enable continuous improvement is to make your current value stream delivery flow transparent and comprehensive for everyone.

Making the flow transparent means mapping its key value-adding activities. It is called value stream mapping (VSM). VSM is a technique mainly used in lean environments to analyse the current flow and figure out how we can improve it to deliver value faster.

Mapping the flow allows us to trace what we do to deliver value to our end-users. It also reveals what we should stop doing, any major time and effort wasters extending our time to market loops. Let’s call them “black holes” of the project.

“Black holes” are non-value-adding activities that are not obvious and hard to forecast since they are not about the work itself but anything that happens in between. They are hard to estimate and challenging to trace. They usually appear when we lack working agreements. Any situation that prevents us from delivering value steady and fast, the state of things we usually fail to identify quickly and come up with an action plan is a “black hole”.

From my experience, most of the project “black holes” are caused by poor handovers and delayed decision making and, in general, if there are little understanding of how to deal with the project corner cases and who should be in charge of it. Some of the cases I manage to identify in the teams I worked with:

  • Ill-defined roles and areas of responsibility within and beyond the team causing piles of deferred decisions. (I’ve noticed there is a tendency to avoid decision making if it’s not defined and agreed who should take care of it).
  • Little or no understanding of how other teams do their job and what part of it should be agreed on, planned or done together.
  • Little or no agreement on how to handle changes if they happen or required. Nor who should initiate or execute a particular change.
  • Fuzzy priorities, lacking agreement on how to balance our value stream against others.
  • Poor crisis management procedures. No agreement on how to “fight fires” and who should be in charge of it.

Of course, project waste is not merely about fuzzy project roles or lacking working agreement. But before anything else, I would personally choose to fix ambiguity about the way we work. Making your value stream flow transparent is a great way to start. It also has several key performance-boosting benefits:

  • It introduces the bigger picture and fosters systems thinking.
  • If you invite other teams it can bring multiple perspectives onto the table.
  • It creates common ground and fosters shaping working agreements together.
  • It starts a conversation about improvement.
  • It brings teams closer together and encourages collaboration.

I’m sure there are more and every team will discover their own benefits as they go. As for me, value stream mapping is a great way to reveal everyone’s part of the bigger picture and emphasize its significance for the common result.

In the long-run mapping your value stream should boost your delivery rate, facilitate addressing bottlenecks, and shift from start-stop work style to a smoother value delivery flow.

No need to invite an external coach. As a Scrum Master, Project Manager or a Team Lead, you can initiate and facilitate a VSM session yourself. When one of my teams faced some of the “black holes”, I decided to run a VSM collaborative session myself. Instead of coaching I wanted to elicit key value stream activities and driving roles from the team. It was fun and involved a lot of collaboration and interaction between different project roles. In the end, we defined owners and made up an action plan for every scenario we felt was overlooked.

And now I’m writing this post is to share some of the tips from my experience with you!

For the session you would need:

  • multi-colored post-its
  • A4 paper sheets
  • markers
  • some spare wall or floor space to put or stick the papers to

To bring multiple perspectives, make sure you invite members of the teams you want to improve collaboration with (tech, marketing, business, etc.).

You will need someone to make notes during this session if you act as a facilitator and do the moderation magic.

Start your session with a question addressed to everyone involved in the value delivery process:

What does it take to deliver value to our end user in our case?

Explain that you want to create a map of how value is created and delivered by your team/s to your end users. Emphasize that everyone has their impact and can bring their perspective on the table. Having a specific case in mind can help better analyse the state of things. To introduce some context you can ask “What does it take to deliver [a particular feature] from concept creation to end-users shipping?”.

Stages:

1. Gathering activities

Ask the teams to write down all the activities they think it takes to deliver value from concept to shipping.

Ask to put one activity per A4 sheet in capital letters. It works better in small teams of 4-5 (you can form the teams functional teams to present their part of the process (Dev, QA, UX, Marketing etc.), or mixed teams to ensure deeper perspectives sharing).

2. Building the value stream flow

Map the flow using the A4 sheets by ordering the activities with all the teams together.

Use walls or some spare floor to place the sheets. Your aim is to represent the flow and to build a common picture using suggestions from all the teams (in case of overlappings use one of the similar suggestions).

Building Value Stream Flow Is Hard

3. Identifying dependencies

Ask the teams to identify which of the activities are connected and if they depend on each other. Analyse what kind of dependency it is.

Some activities depend on others, some can happen in parallel. Mapping dependencies is a preparation stage for identifying blockers and delays.

4. Identifying “black holes”

Discover the existing “black holes” and blockers. Gather as many perspectives as possible. You might discover that the teams see only their part of the picture and it’s a great opportunity to involve others to extend their vision and encourage systems thinking.

Deciding on Who’s Who

5. Assigning roles and defining action plans

After you mapped the flow, identified the dependencies and discovered your “black holes”, assign project roles and agree on the corresponding action plan for each “black hole” and blocker.

Together you discuss and assign one or several roles to each activity, explicitly stating who drives or owns each of them. You can split the roles into execution and decision-making types. In case there is a discrepancy in how the teams see their roles, it’s a great opportunity to reach agreement. Make sure you have someone to write down the summary of your agreements as well as the action plans you come up with together.

Value Stream Flow with Attached Roles

Use post-its to stick the roles you defined to each activity represented by a separate A4 sheet. Attach multiple roles to activities using the multi-coloured post-its (one colour per role).

6. Working agreements: notes and follow-up

Cheer everyone! You did a great job and became one step closer to improving your collaboration!

Arrange the notes neat and tidy and make them available for everyone to refer to. Send a follow up.


The less ambiguity there is about your process, the less project waste you face. Value stream mapping also helps to create a shared vision and common ground for more efficient decision-making.

As a facilitator, I am always excited about the conversation Value Stream Mapping triggers. It is insightful and brings clarity to people’s minds. As well as joy of discovery and collaboration.

If you find this post useful, follow my blog and stay tuned for some more!


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