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Taking the Handoff: Using Value Stream Mapping to Visualize Your Process

Posted October 29, 2020 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence
Visualize Your Process with Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping (VSM) is a Lean manufacturing method used to analyze and manage the flow of materials/information/product to be able to bring a product to a customer. Items are mapped as “adding value” or “not adding value” from the customer’s viewpoint, with the purpose of uncovering whatever doesn’t add value. It’s a team event. Identification of wasteful handoffs inspires team members to consciously improve communication and collaboration, which positively impacts the quality culture. The magnifying glass used to examine the visual value stream map is based on the customer’s perspective. This means that individual opinions, or petty disagreements, more or less go away when people start asking, “But would customers pay us for this, if they knew we were doing this step?” Last, but not least, if during VSM, you discover a root cause and a source of waste, reducing or even eliminating waste will improve your company’s bottom line.

VSM can be used to improve any process where there are repeatable steps — and especially when there are multiple handoffs. Anecdotal story here: On a recent visit to the eye doctor, Catherine recalled some undue wait time during her previous visit. This time, she thought she’d be smart; she logged every step of the process and all of her wait time (e.g., sign in at 2 pm; wait 22 minutes in the waiting room; escorted to the glaucoma testing machine at 2:22 pm; wait five minutes watching them clean the machines; and so on, until she finally sat in front of the doctor to get her eyes tested to get her new prescription). In her view, the value-add time was a mere six minutes. The rest was a complete waste of her time. She showed the doctor the breakdown of what she would consider waste (as his customer), and he was so apologetic that she received free frames for her new glasses.

In manufacturing, handoffs are easy to visualize because they usually involve transitions of a tangible deliverable through physical workstations. You can literally see the deliverable move through the process. Consider the example of a vehicle: If a problem arises when assembling a vehicle, line workers can see a quality issue on the assembly line, a scratch in a vehicle, let’s say. They can then “stop the line” by pulling the andon cord, solve that problem, and get the process flowing again. Imagine for a moment the cultural shift required here to instill this quality focus. Stopping production of a bunch of cars on an assembly line represents an enormous cost; yet if we find and fix a problem as early as possible, the cost will be much less than if we find and fix the problem later. For this cultural shift to happen, everyone must have the psychological safety to be able to pull that andon cord, and then it’s all hands on deck to solve the issue.

The application of Lean VSM — also referred to as “visualizing” or “mapping” your process — 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 long cycle time and poor quality. 

Before You Schedule a VSM Exercise...

Try not to overdo it. Don’t rush to use costly professional charts, tools, and symbols. 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, not create more. Red, green, and yellow sticky notes are all that we use to get started.

To start, identify a simple, not too complex, value stream. Don’t rush to perform VSM on a value stream that is not valuable. Bring in some­one who has participated in a VSM exercise to run it. The first time you do this, try to involve experienced VSM-ers, in case your mapping process ends up being super complex. Don’t start a VSM exercise if you haven’t made clear what waste is, what value is, and what value stream you’re focusing on. In addition, ensure you have the people who walk the process available and all in the same room (physical or virtual) for the VSM exercise.

The process of identifying waste can be intense. Unlike manufacturing, you cannot always see the moving parts in knowledge work. For example, a design that two people are tossing back and forth isn’t necessarily a wasteful handoff; the design could be improving during this process. Be gentle with your team so that you keep the discussions going and keep psychological safety high.

Start with baby steps. You likely won’t be affecting the bottom line at first, but you’ll be happy getting the journey started to “lean” out your processes, and your team will likely enjoy finding small wins that help them stop doing wasteful things or reduce their frustrations from delays and time pressures.

VSM in the Age of COVID-19

What if your team isn’t colocated, either due to the nature of the business or due to disruptions like COVID-19 quarantines? Can you still do a VSM exercise together, effectively? The answer is yes; you can hold the exercise online with videoconferencing and adapt the “sticky note” process to take advantage of online collaboration tools (e.g., MURAL and Miro).

One potential positive consequence of increasing work from home during COVID-19 is greater awareness of handoffs and delays that used to be relatively invisible or undocumented. When colocated, it can be far easier to tag an in-office colleague for a quick design or code review; when working remotely, delays in this step can impact schedules or cause reviews to be skipped, impacting quality. Your VSM exercise can take advantage of the heightened visibility of these handoffs to identify and help address potential areas of waste.

[For more from the authors on this topic, see “Value Stream Mapping as a Teaming Exercise.”]

About The Author
Catherine Louis
Catherine Louis is an independent Agile coach and founder of CLL-Group and PoDojo. Her specialties include Agile transitions in the scope of large, multinodal-solution, high-reliability systems, with large teams of several hundred to several thousand R&D employees. Ms. Louis focuses on leadership training, offering a unique Certified Agile Leader workshop based on her experience leading a large (over 2,000 developers) transition from phased-… Read More
Karen Smiley
Karen Smiley is an Agile analytics R&D leader with more than 25 years’ experience developing and managing data-driven scientific applications, systems, and services. Her industrial experience spans the full software-hardware development lifecycle in small startups to large global enterprises. Ms. Smiley and her teams have solved technical problems and improved development processes across the domains of healthcare, steel manufacturing,… Read More