Getting Started with Value Stream Management
Value stream management (VSM) has been one of the hottest buzzwords in DevOps over the last few years—but what does it actually mean in practice, and how can DevOps professionals implement VSM in a way that helps them achieve more without disrupting their existing pipelines?
I sat down with Siddharth Pareek, Global Practice Lead for DevOps at NatWest Group UK to discuss VSM, why it matters, and what DevOps teams can practically do to start their journey toward using VSM to improve their development process.
What is VSM?
Jon Collins: Hi Siddharth, and thanks for joining me today. My theory is Value Stream Management is really just the reinsertion of good old management governance visibility principles into fast-moving, dynamic Agile. I don’t know how that resonates with your organization, Siddharth?
Siddharth Pareek: I think it resonates with most of the organizations I’ve worked with. We have started running tools and technologies, we have started running towards cloud, digital transformation—but in that journey of going through change or being in competition, or getting digital, getting cloud, somewhere down the line we have forgotten, “What is the value we are actually trying to derive? For whom? Why?”
Jon Collins: It’s one of those things that when you’ve realized that you’ve forgotten, you’re like: “Oh my goodness! Right, we definitely need to focus on this!” It’s just something that’s been forgotten. It’s not like we’re building a rocket ship here. It’s merely that we’ve forgotten why we’re here in the first place.
Silos in the Pipeline
Siddharth Pareek: It may be possible that people are focusing on just one part of the delivery pipeline. There are different teams assigned at different stages. Each team does not have the view of the whole delivery. So if you ask them what is happening at the team level, you may have an answer, or asking the ops team what’s happening at their level, they may have an answer. But if you ask, “What is happening in that whole delivery pipeline?” They don’t have an answer for it.
Jon Collins: The thing I’ve learned is, essentially, that we should move from a project mindset to a product mindset. But I’ve worked in project offices, you know, CMOs and so on where everything’s about the deadlines. Everything’s about the Gantt charts. Everything’s about the scheduling. And then when you hit a deadline, you’ve done it, and you’re pleased, but you’ve got absolutely no inkling of whether or not what you did was useful. So this idea that it’s actually about a product, because when you build a product you deliver it, and then you’re really keen to know what it is that you have, whether or not your customers are using it and whether it works, and so on.
Siddharth Pareek: For DevOps professionals in the field, about to go on the journey to search for value using VSM, do you think it is something which has been forgotten, that could come back into the foreground, or do they need to discover it completely fresh?
Jon Collins: Value stream management is about thinking of things as value streams and then managing them as value streams. But then how do you do that and what does it mean in practice? The first step is, if you want visibility of your value stream, which is essentially onto your development pipeline, then you need to know what it is. So value stream mapping is vital. There are tools out there that essentially enable you to map out the different activities that happen in your pipeline in any process.
I’ve had really good experience with the business process side of things where you do lots of interviews, you write down exactly all the different stages and then you present it back and everyone says, “Oh, that’s great. Fantastic. Finally, now I understand it!”
So if you’re not getting on top of outlining your value streams and where that value lies, then a really good first step is to just start speaking to people, work out what’s happening. It doesn’t matter if it’s being done efficiently, because the goal of the next stage is to help it be done more efficiently. What matters is, do you understand how things are built? Do you understand how things are deployed today? If it’s complex and convoluted, you’re already halfway towards solving the problem because you are already identifying areas that you can address.
Efficiency is King
Jon Collins: I’m a great believer in separating out efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency, essentially, is doing the right thing. So if you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re probably wasting money: you’re spending time doing stuff you don’t need to and you’re creating problems for yourself that are unnecessary. In software development terms that maps onto bottlenecks. For example, something goes off to the test team. It sits around for two weeks, waiting for them to get through their testing backlog and then finally comes back to you, which is very inefficient, of course. So, you can start to identify things like that.
Now we’re happy with our pipeline, which we’re calling a value stream, the next step is really the master class of VSM: It’s the why.
Siddharth Pareek: Exactly. Are the things that you’re building actually going to help people? How can you measure the value in features that you’re building? How can you rank them according to whether or not they’re supposed to give value? What metrics do you want to put around that?
Jon Collins: And then, how much do they cost to build? And then when you release them: How can you show that they are actually delivering the benefits that you expected?
This could be a feature on a website that simplifies the way that people buy multiple things. You build it, you implement it, you add it to your shopping basket functionality, then you have to examine whether or not people are buying more stuff from you. Or are they buying faster or has the average order value increased? Or you can look at customer experience metrics, etc.
But ultimately in that situation, you’d care mostly about people spending more with you. And so good tools in the value stream management sphere actually enable you to link metrics like website effectiveness and the amount that’s going through the shopping cart with the pipeline so you can get a direct feedback loop on the benefits that your stuff is providing.
So that’s really the kind of toolkit around values. And value stream management, of course, is a response to a need, because it’s emerged that people aren’t necessarily thinking about value.