I was riding home on my bike recently when the traffic lights turned red, as they do. I stopped, and waited for them to turn green again so I could go. There were cars all around me. When the lights finally did turn green I pedalled as hard as I could to try to get clear of the traffic and into a safe space at the edge of the road.
Unfortunately, my bike picked that exact moment to develop a fault.
The freehub that is supposed to disconnect the wheel from the chain when you are rolling down a hill decided that now was a really good time to go into operation. But it wasn’t supposed to. The result was that no matter how hard I pedalled – and believe me, I pedalled as hard as I could – the bike just stayed still, before slowly starting to topple over. I felt like a character in a classic cartoon, working hard but making no progress and heading for a fall.
Later, when I’d had a bit of time to recover, I started to ask myself what it was about this incident that felt so oddly familiar. And then I realized that it’s a great metaphor for what is wrong with many of the IT organizations I’ve known. However hard they work, they never seem to get anywhere. The thing is, no matter how hard we work, we can’t make any progress unless everything is connected to create a functional value chain.
When I refer to a value chain, I am thinking about all the different things that have to work together smoothly to deliver a result. For a typical IT organization, it might look something like this…
The infrastructure teams support servers, storage, and networks. The application teams use this infrastructure to create applications for teams in the business units to use. And it is the teams in the business units who provide goods or services to the external customers who, in the end, pay for everything. Any work done by any of these teams that doesn’t actually create value for the external customers is just like me pedalling my bike without actually being connected to the mechanisms that make the bike move. It might be difficult and time consuming, but it isn’t particularly worthwhile.
So how can we differentiate between activities that create value for the external customers, and those which are just like pedalling a broken bike? One technique that I have found very useful is called value stream mapping. This is a method Lean practitioners use when they want to understand an entire flow of activities. You start by talking to all the people involved and getting them to write down what they actually do. Don’t start with the existing process documentation – you want to know what people do in practice, not what they are supposed to do if they go by the book. It usually works best if you get everyone to write the things they do on post-it notes so that you can rearrange the activities until you can see the whole sequence on a wall. This draws on another Lean principle, Visual Management - make everything visible to all the people involved so they can identify improvements themselves.
Once you have mapped out all the activities, you consider each one in turn and ask yourself whether this step creates value for external customers. Some useful questions to facilitate this are:
For example, think about managing incidents. If you had twice as many incidents would this be better for your external customers? Probably not! Everybody needs incident management, but the truth is it doesn’t actually create any value. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do incident management, but simply that doing lots of incident management is NOT a good thing, because incidents don’t create value and are inherently costly and disruptive. You might be much better off if you did more problem management and availability management to prevent incidents from happening in the first place.
Once you’ve identified all the things you do, and understood which of these activities create value for your customers, you can think about how to work more efficiently.
The first step is to eliminate as many of the things that don’t create value for external customers as you can. The more activities you can eliminate the better. Identify the things that don’t create value and stop doing them. This is a great way to increase efficiency without making people work harder.
Then try to optimize how you do the things that are left. These are the value-creating steps of your process, so each of them should focus on creating value for your customers. The more efficiently you carry out these steps, the better you’ll be at creating customer value, and that’s what we’re all here for in the first place.
Some organizations choose to engage a team of Lean consultants to help them run a big improvement project, but I usually find that the people who actually do the work can make many improvements themselves, if they are given the encouragement to do so, and somebody explains a simple technique, like value stream mapping, to them.
So how about you? When did you last stand back and look at what you do from a value creation perspective? If you feel like you’re pedalling hard but not making any progress, then maybe it’s time to consider value stream mapping.