Lean thinking has had a substantial influence on helping enterprises to improve the flow of value across their software delivery organization. Yet, for many companies in what industry visionary Brian Solis calls the “Novel Economy,” where market conditions have yet to be identified or understood, the degree of responsiveness and agility required to adapt and remain competitive is still not sufficient.
By measuring how value flows through a product’s value stream, however, everyone from practitioners to business leaders can initiate “daily Gemba walks” to obtain real-time continuous insight into the software delivery value streams that serve internal and external customers. You can see what’s slowing you down today and where to invest resources to continuously improve where it matters to support both the customer and employee experience.
Unique Challenges in Software Delivery Value Streams
A software delivery value stream is the sequence of activities an organization undertakes to respond to a customer need that results in the delivery of value. Yet, they are not so easy to identify and measure because much of the work is knowledge-sharing. While Lean practices such as value stream mapping have helped us to identify the current state of processes, learn to see where bottlenecks are and learn to improve with experiments to reach a desired future state, there are significant challenges.
Logistics such as scheduling time, people and the right kind of meeting room, as well as extracting objective data for improvement strategies, make it difficult to keep a regular cadence of assessing the value stream. And, within a relatively short amount of time, the information we captured goes stale, because priorities and strategic initiatives are dynamic and ever-changing.
Furthermore, since the software delivery work from ideation to operation is mostly cognitive and often complex, it is difficult to accurately map the flow of value. The process flow is not linear—it’s more like a network. The complexities of the interrelated components and variability of how teams work are difficult to capture in an understandable manner. As a result, we lack complete and objective visibility into the end-to-end flow of work to make time-critical decisions to improve performance.
Going to the Gemba
There’s a concept in Lean thinking of learning by going to the place where the actual work happens—“the Gemba”—to observe the work first hand. However, in software delivery at scale, even if we take a Gemba walk through the floors of our buildings where members of the value stream are working, we won’t gain much understanding of what’s going on. We might see kanban boards, huddles and charts, but what we mostly see are people working on their laptops at their multi-screened-in desks. We only really see a small slice of the set of activities that create value.
So how do we see all the activities across the whole value stream at a continuous cadence to help us make both reactive and proactive decisions to improve flow in the most pressing areas? One approach is Flow Metrics, as described in Mik Kersten’s book, “Project to Product,” via the Flow Framework.
A lean and prescriptive approach that guides organizations on what and how to measure in software delivery at scale, the framework uses Flow Metrics to provide business and IT leaders with shared, real-time insights into the relationship between technology delivery and business outcomes. It helps you to establish your baseline to see where you are today and pinpoint where you need to focus your energy.
These value stream metrics track the flow of business value by correlating the investment in accelerating flow for each product’s value stream with the desired business outcome. We can use these metrics to scale what we used to do in our value stream mapping sessions to a daily Gemba walk based on objective data without interrupting the teams involved.
We can see first hand the velocity at which our teams are producing value. We see the efficiency and distribution of their work. We see the work-in-progress (WIP) and the lead time for value creation. We see the correlation between the product value stream contributors’ hard work and the resulting business results (such as a new feature for revenue; fixed defects for product quality/customer; paying down tech debt to improve delivery speed, security and risk work to protect against breaches, and so on).
Business-level Metrics That Count
The Flow Metrics are:
- Flow Velocity gauges whether value delivery is accelerating. It is the number of flow items of each type completed over a particular period (also known as throughput).
- Flow Time can identify when the time to value is getting longer. It measures the time it takes for flow items to go from work start to work complete, including both active and wait times.
- Flow Efficiency can identify when waste is increasing or decreasing in your processes. It is the ratio of active time versus wait time out of the total Flow time.
- Flow Load monitors over- and underutilization of value streams, which can lead to reduced productivity. It measures the number of flow items currently in progress (active or waiting) within a value stream.
Alongside the above set of Flow Metrics, the measurement of Flow Distribution helps prioritize specific types of work during specific time frames to meet the desired business outcome. Flow Distribution measures the ratio of the four flow items (feature, defects, debt and risk) completed over a window of time.
Flow Metrics ideally should be displayed in a single dashboard, providing IT and business leaders with a complete view of value delivery and an understanding of how the metrics are affecting each other. Here’s an example:
Flow Metrics are opening a real-time window to see the value stream activity that we previously could not see as frequently and as objectively. Consider taking a daily Gemba walk for software delivery to ensure you’re meeting the most pressing needs of your customers, internal and external, to navigate through the opaqueness of the Novel Economy.