Value Stream Mapping

Learn how this analysis technique can optimize your CD pipeline.

Juni Mukherjee Juni Mukherjee

What is Value Stream Mapping?

Value stream mapping (VSM) is a lean manufacturing technique to analyze, design, and manage the flow of materials and information required to bring a product to a customer. It uses a system of standard symbols to depict various work streams and information flows. Items are mapped as adding value or not adding value from the customer’s standpoint, with the purpose of rooting out items that don’t add value.

Value stream mapping can be used to improve any process where there are repeatable steps – and especially when there are multiple handoffs. In manufacturing, handoffs are simpler to visualize because they usually involve the handoff of a tangible deliverable through stations. If, for example, a problem arises when assembling a vehicle, line workers can see the physical parts accumulating and jamming up a certain part of the assembly line. They can then stop the line to solve that problem and get the process flowing again.

The application of value stream mapping – also referred to as “visualizing” or “mapping” your process – isn’t limited to the assembly line. Lean value stream mapping is gaining momentum in knowledge work because it results in better team communication and more effective collaboration. Much of the waste in knowledge work occurs in the handoffs (or wait time) between team members, not within the steps themselves. Inefficient handoffs lead to low productivity and poor quality. VSM helps identify waste and streamline the production process.

If you’re familiar with continuous delivery, then you likely already have an idea of how VSM can apply to— and improve — that process. But before we dive into that topic, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of adopting VSM.

Benefits of Value Stream Mapping

VSM is critical for a business to be sustainable, and here’s why:

  • Reducing or eliminating waste can improve your company’s bottom line. As a bonus, you discover the root cause and the source of the waste.
  • Once wasteful handoffs are identified as part of VSM visualizers, your teams can consciously improve behavior, culture, communication, and collaboration.
  • Teams discard of individual opinions and prioritize based on the customer’s perspective.

Challenges of Value Stream Mapping

VSM can be wasteful in itself, if we are not careful. Here’s how you can avoid common pitfalls:

  • The LOE (level of effort) to conduct a VSM should be balanced with the potential value and savings. Essentially, keep an eye on the RoI (return on investment) from the start.
  • Involve experienced people in conducting VSM since the mapping process could be vastly cross-functional and complex.
  • Fear and uncertainty in the minds of people are common symptoms when a VSM is being conducted, and so the process of identifying waste can be intense.
  • Improving a step here and a step there will rake in savings for sure, however, may not directly translate to a bottom line improvement until a full walkthrough is completed. Having said that, baby steps are often a great way to start.
  • Don’t rush to use professional charts, tools, and symbols right away. First, sketch with a pencil or use a whiteboard and get the idea. Once the dust settles, formalize the map appropriately. Remember, you are trying to cut waste, and not create any more than you already have.

Overall, doing a VSM it is fine, over-doing it can be problematic.

VSM use cases

Let’s briefly look at how VSMs bring value to various industries. The domain determines the process items that flow through the value stream map.

In a supply chain, a VSM can root out costly delays leading to a finished product. In manufacturing, a VSM helps in finding waste by analyzing each step of material handling and information flow. The process items that flow through the value stream are materials.

In service industries, a VSM facilitates effective and timely services for external customers, whereas inside administration and offices, it facilitates services for internal customers. In healthcare, a VSM ensures that patients are effectively treated with high-quality care. The process items that flow through the value stream are customer needs.

Application of VSM to continuous delivery

In software development, a VSM can reveal inefficiencies from idea to production, including feedback loops and rework. It can help reduce the number of steps and the need for rework. Mapping your process can help you visualize where handoffs occur so you can also discover where wait time keeps work from moving through your system.

By definition, CD doesn’t need to make use of VSM and it is perfectly possible to design and implement a CD pipeline without knowledge of VSM.

With proper implementation, value stream mapping fosters a culture of continuous improvement that has been proven effective in software engineering and operations. The map illustrates the outcomes of the value stream analysis, providing a visual tool to facilitate understanding and communication.

Creating a Value Stream Map

The first step towards creating a lean environment – increasing value and removing waste – is analyzing the value stream.

The VSM symbols

There are standard symbols for drawing a VSM.

A chart showing the symbols commonly used on Value Stream Maps | Atlassian CI/CD

How to create a VSM - one step at a time

i. Identify a slice of the product

Identify a slice of the product that has high business value, since that will make it easier to establish the RoIe of conducting VSM.

ii. Empower the right team

Empower a mature and experienced team who can skillfully finish the map in a timely fashion. The C-suite should set aside enough budget to ensure that execution is uninterrupted.

iii. Decide the problem you are solving for

What problem are you solving from the customer’s standpoint? Are your customers requesting a drop in price or an increase in quality? Or both? Publish the problem statement and get everyone on the same page.

iv. Bound the process

Once the problem statement is published, limit the scope of your VSM accordingly. You may not need to map the release process in its entirety, and focus on a particular area instead.

v. Map the bounded process

Try to go through the bounded process yourself. This can make a difference, since firsthand experience cannot be substituted by (possibly biased) narratives and (possibly incomplete and inaccurate) documentation done by others.

Define the steps. I do the VSM walk a few times instead of just once. This sounds redundant, however, I found missing pieces in the second pass that were not exposed in the first pass. And when we dug some more, skeletons fell out of the closet in the third (and final) pass! They say, the 3rd time's the charm! Sure it was.

vi. Collect process data

As you do the VSM walk, note the process data in the data boxes of the map. Process data includes (but is not limited to) number of people involved, the average number of working hours, cycle time, wait time, uptime, downtime, and the like.

vii. Create a timeline

Map out process times and lead times.

viii. Assess your current map

Be inquisitive. Curiosity never killed the cat, and they have nine lives anyways!

Is your lead time too long? And if yes, is it because your test suites don’t (or can’t) run in parallel? Do you have stable environments, or do you observe intermittent test failures that the teams cannot reproduce?

Or maybe, you have process steps that you think are valuable but don’t mean anything to the customer? Regarding the information flow, look for stagnation and drag in the flow. Note whether it was a push versus a pull.

ix. Design the future map

You may not be able to nail a full and final version, and that’s okay. Make sure you new map aligns with the company’s vision.

Also, nothing is set in stone. Based on customer needs, make continuous adjustments.

x. Implement the future map

Follow the VSM of the future and validate that it makes better sense for the customers. It should have solved the problem statement that you started with. Monitor KPIs regularly and learn from trends. Make sure everyone is rowing in the direction of customers.

If you're interested to see what the finished product looks like, here's a value stream map example.

Why bring VSM to your team?

Value stream mapping can be applied to industries that are looking to improve their processes across all business functions. Visualizing handoffs help optimize the flow and help generate savings. Without the visualization, expect your meetings to run longer and business outcomes to be hazy.

Value stream maps can do wonders to fuel continuous improvement. In the software development world, continuous improvement is at the heart of the continuous paradigm where continuous delivery pipelines deliver products frequently, predictably, and sustainably to customers. When you can release at the speed of ideation, your customers will be happy!

VSMs also help improve team culture, since productive teams are more engaged and are fun to work with! Since culture, productivity, and savings are just some of the rich dividends, shouldn’t VSMs be near the top of your single prioritized backlog?