How Can We Understand Workflow Deeply Enough to Improve It? (the “Value Stream”)

One of the cardinal rules of Lean-Agile is that to improve something, you must be first be able to see it. The work done by an organization is almost always different in significant ways than the work its people think they are doing. That difference is where many of the best improvements lie. So, the first step in improving work is get a clear picture of what work steps are actually being done, in what order, by whom and for how long each.

The main technique for getting to that clear picture is called “Value-Stream Mapping.” Its product, the clear picture of work being done, is called a “Value-Stream Map” or VSM. It can be done at any level or scale in an organization, gaining understanding at the workflow for that level.

Value-Stream Mapping can be used to identify improvements to the work done by the organization.

Understanding the Value Stream

The value stream is essentially all of the work that takes place from the inception of an idea until it has been created and consumed by the customer. In reality, the value stream keeps going, including the support of the customer and future enhancements. But for most practical purposes this “concept” to “consumption” view is sufficient.

The idea of the value stream illustrates the importance of considering the entire workflow, not merely focusing on the team.  The value stream is the instrument for implementing the Lean concept of “optimize the whole”.  In this case, typically the optimization occurs when the cycle time (the time from start to finish) is minimal.

The key aspect of a value stream map is that it creates visibility on the work that is taking place. You can’t manage anything if you can’t see it.

Creating a Value Stream Map

Before starting a value stream map it is important to remember that it is a map about how one, particular, project is being worked on. In other words, we are mapping the flow of work for a particular project.  We are not mapping the amount of time people are working on different projects.

There is not one way to create a value stream map.  But having led hundreds of folks in creating value stream maps, I’ve seen this six step process work pretty well.  The six steps are:

  1. Identify the actions that take place
  2. Specify the calendar time over which these actions are worked on
  3. Specify how much of the time these actions were being worked on actual work was taking place and how much time was spent waiting
  4. Specify the amount of time between these steps
  5. Look, and denote, any loop backs present in the work flow
  6. Total up the average time working on the project

Learn how: These steps are described in value stream mapping and understanding workflow deeply enough to improve it.

Where We Spend Our Time

The value stream shows us that we spend most of our time waiting for someone or something else.  This should be no surprise.  Imagine how many times you send an email off and then go off and do something else until you get a response?  Most of our time in non-co-located teams is spent waiting to get information from somewhere else. If your organization is siloed people are likely working on multiple projects.  When one considers how delays literally create waste see Why looking at time is so important) all of this delay may be causing more extra work than we might first think.

Which Gives a Better Return?

Analyzing the value stream gives us the insight that we need to focus on delays more in removing the delays within our workflow than in improving the steps themselves.  Of course, this doesn’t mean ignore making the steps better. Ironically, when we start looking at delays, many new methods (ATDD, TDD, design patterns) start proving to be good ways to eliminate these delays.


To improve something, we must be able to see it clearly. Value-Stream Mapping gives us a clear view of our workflow; what we are doing, how each step relates to other steps, how long each step takes, how much waiting we are doing between steps. Seeing these clearly shows us where we can improve our workflow by removing delays, improving the sequence of steps, and where we should focus on identifying better practices.