Mapping Your Value Stream for Kanban and Lean Enterprise Agility

By Doug Rose

Kanban and Lean are much different from the leading enterprise agile frameworks. Most of those frameworks call for big changes that involve new roles, new workflows, lots of new terminology, and even a new way to deliver product. Kanban and Lean take a softer approach. They don’t try to rewire your organization — at least not all at once. Instead they start by looking at what’s in place and identifying areas that could be improved or eliminated.

Start by mapping your value stream — all processes your organization does to deliver value to the customer. Find the biggest whiteboard or wall, and start taping 3-x-5 index cards or sticky notes to it, typically from left to right, to map the stream. Moveable notes make it easier to edit your maps. If yours is a large organization, you may want to divvy up the work among various departments or teams. Depending on the complexity of your value stream and the number of dependencies, this step can take a day to several weeks.

Kanban is designed to optimize your process. Your Kanban value stream will be about eliminating the waste in your process. Other enterprise agile frameworks, such as the Scaled Agile Framework, are designed to deliver an enterprise-level product. They use value streams as a way to determine what steps your team takes to deliver a product. Even though they’re using value streams in slightly different ways, they both focus on optimizing your stream into the fewest possible steps.

For example, suppose your organization develops software. You may have ten 3-x-5 cards that represent sequential processes in the stream:

  1. The customer describes a challenge and requests a solution.
  2. The business owner and customer discuss the challenge and possible solutions.
  3. A business analyst and the development team meet to discuss the solutions, choose the best one, and agree to add a new feature to the software.
  4. The development team commits to a delivery date.
  5. The development team develops the feature.
  6. The quality assurance team tests the new feature.
  7. The development team integrates the new feature into the existing software.
  8. The business analyst works with the customer to conduct user acceptance testing.
  9. The business analyst meets with the development team to deliver any feedback.
  10. The development team incorporates the changes and fixes and releases the upgrade for delivery to the customer.

As you map your value stream, think about and record the rationale behind every process that contributes to the stream. You can write notes on the 3-x-5 cards or use sticky notes. Why does your organization do it? How does it contribute to the value stream? What value does it add? If it were eliminated, would the value stream suffer? Would the customer even notice? These are all questions that get you thinking about how processes contribute to your organization’s value stream.

Map your value stream as it is, not as you think it should be. As soon as you start mapping, you will begin to notice inefficiencies that you may feel too embarrassed to admit or disclose, but admit and disclose you must. Kanban and Lean both emphasize transparency to provide visibility into work processes.

In large organizations, mapping the value stream is a very difficult task. Most processes are created with little thought or planning; they just evolve over time. Often they’re based on assumptions, and one of the big false assumptions is that a lot of thought went into process design.

Many processes evolve to solve an immediate problem, so when adding the process, the organization doesn’t consider the cost or how the process will impact the overall system. Over time your business processes can start to feel like office furniture. Everyone takes it for granted, and no one thinks about how it looks.