What is value stream mapping

Value stream mapping in software development

Value stream mapping is one of the most powerful tools of lean development today. It helps companies understand the process from the standpoint of a customer, eliminate activities that do not bring value and optimize the value streams from the development to the delivery to end-customer. 

What is value stream mapping?  

Value stream mapping (VSM) is a technique designed to analyze the flow of materials and information that is required to develop and bring a final product to the customer. It was first used in manufacturing and is also known as the “material and information flow mapping.”  

Visually, the value stream mapping is a flowchart. It uses a system of standard symbols, known as “the language of Lean” to depict the flow of materials, information and various workstreams. Items are analyzed by the standpoint of the customer, to see if they add a value or not and are mapped accordingly with the idea to root out the items that bring no value.

The historic background 

Knowing the history of the value stream mapping helps us understand its connection to the modern agile software development and its role in it. Historically, organizations were using value stream mapping in production and manufacturing. Many people attribute the creation of VSM technique to the Toyota Motor Corporation. However, this technique existed years before Toyota started using it. The early diagrams of the information and material flow were found in the book published in 1918. 

However, Toyota was one of the first companies to adopt the practice of material and information flow mapping and was utterly successful with its lean manufacturing methods. Its success contributed to making the value stream mapping technique a popular practice for high-efficiency teams in the 90s.  

The four main principles of the Toyota way included: focusing on long-term sustainability, adding value, solving root problems and eliminating the waste in the production system. It listed seven major wastes, including unnecessary motion and defects and a waiting time. As a result, any action that did not impact either the functionality or delivery of the car was considered as a waste and was removed from the process. 

Another method that aimed to reduce waste (processes and procedures that does not add value) in production is Six Sigma, introduced by Bill Smith, an engineer at Motorola in 1986. It aimed to reduce defects in production by increasing the performance and decreasing in process variation.  

Creation of lean manufacturing

These manufacturing concepts were highly efficient and effective in production. As a result, soon, manufacturers from different industries started adopting them in their processes for delivering more value with fewer defects. 

Over time the name “Toyota way” changed to Lean manufacturing. The lean method was first applied to the creation of software in 2003. At the very same year, the famous book “Lean Software Development” was published. 

With this, the material and flow mapping method became the foundation of modern agile software methodology and product development as a concept. 

The purpose of value stream mapping for software development  

Manufacturers were using the material and information flow to bring more value while reducing waste and defects, but what is the purpose of value stream mapping in software development today? The same! 

The main goal in agile software methodology is to develop valuable software for the customer. While the value can be a different capability (providing software of the highest quality, at the right time, at an appropriate cost), it is what the customer is purchasing. The purpose of the value stream mapping is to provide the optimum value to the customer through the whole value streaming process with minimal waste at every stage of the development: design, building, and support.  

VMS is especially important, in the knowledge work fields. In manufacturing the assets were tangible, and employees could see the waste or inefficiency and halt it. In knowledge work, it is different. Here, the main waste comes with handoffs, when the team has to wait until the other team or a member of it completes a task. Such inefficiencies lead to low productivity and overall poor quality. Value stream mapping helps identify these inefficiencies in the workflow and optimize the process.  

How to create value stream map

Decide a problem you want to solve  

The first step is to decide what is the problem that you want to solve. The issue should come from the standpoint of a customer. For example, it can be that you take too long to implement the new features or to respond to the changes. Once you identify the issue, create a problem statement to present to your team.   

Form the right VSM team 

Create the right team for the VSM process. The team members should be skilful and experienced. They should also be able to address the issues you depict during the mapping directly and in a timely fashion. If you think there are inefficiencies in the testing process, there should be a test manager in the team. Some issues might need the involvement of senior leadership. If the goal is to improve the low-level processes, there is no need for it. Last but not least, the team should not be too broad. Up to 10 people would be enough for the most VSM processes.  

Map the process  

Once you have the problem statement and a team, limit the scope of value stream mapping. It is not necessary to do it for the whole process but focus on a particular area instead. Make sure to understand the process very well yourself. Second-hand opinions might be compromised and change your perspective. Walk the walk and see the process by yourself with the customer’s mindset. 

Collect the process data 

While you do value stream mapping write down the process data in the data boxes on the map. It can be the number of people involved, wait time, downtime, number of working hours, and more. Create a timeline by mapping out process time and lead time.

Evaluate current map 

Now it is time to analyze and evaluate the current map. Look into the flow and data. You will be able to see the issues on the map. Maybe teams have a lot of dependencies that create an unnecessary waiting time. Or the testing is inefficient because the environment is not stable or because there is no parallel testing. The map holds valuable information and will help you see and address the root problem. It is also a good source to go back to later and check how the adjustments worked. 

Design the future map 

At this stage, you already know about the waste and inefficiencies in your process. Considering them create new, target value stream mapping. It might not be ideal, but it is not the final one either. You will need to make adjustments based on the customer’s need to deliver a value continuously.  

The key point for the value stream mapping is that it should solve the problem you identified at the beginning. Create it from the customer’s perspective and align with the company’s vision.   

Useful tools for value stream mapping  

There are plenty of useful free or paid tools for VMS. You can start with a good old pen and paper or pre-printed cards on the pinboard. However, if you want to save the changes and keep the map for the future, it is usually better to have a digital flowchart of it as well.  

  • MS Word/PowerPoint: You do not have to learn how to use any new tool, as you can create a VMS in PowerPoint or even in Microsoft Word. 
  • Microsoft Visio: It’s old, yet well-tested and a reliable tool for visualizing complex ideas. Microsoft Visio is easy to use as it comes with multiple templates for plans, flowcharts and timelines. 
  • LucidchartIt is an online diagram software and visual solution that offers cross-platform collaboration. It has an extensive template library you can use for VMS. 
  • Gliffy: Gliffy is a diagramming software that offers collaborative tools. It has tools for easy communication and collaboration. Gliffy also has a native Atlassian integration.  
  • Miro: Miro is another enterprise-ready and cross-device team collaboration software. It also offers integrations with Jira, Google Suite, Slack and more. 

Why should you use value stream mapping in software development?  

You cannot overestimate the benefits of value stream mapping in the agile software development methodology. Visualizing the process relations helps companies identify the root issues that are not seen on the surface. The visual representation helps to deliver the message across the organization and to the clients and helps organizations better communicate the process. 

Using value stream mapping in software development will help you identify the waste, make the processes efficient and find the Centre point for conversations about future growth. Most importantly, it will help you continuously create and deliver a valuable product to your customers. 


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