How agile development teams use value streams

Value stream mapping can help IT align projects with business impact and set priorities.

How agile development teams use value streams
Eleassar (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many businesses are investing heavily in digital transformation, gearing up their cultures to deliver more capabilities aligned to customer needs. But understanding business value and aligning efforts to customer benefits is a challenging discipline. 

It’s relatively easy to understand the value delivered from agile development teams in small IT organizations or teams working on new applications. These teams can report on their feature completion velocity, their track record of deploying releases on time, and quality metrics such as the number of defects found in production.

Smaller organizations can also stitch together metrics using out-of-the-box reports directly from their tools. For example, the agile team might use epic burndown reports or incident management metrics from IT service management tools and then speak to the business impacts.

Defining and leveraging metrics in larger IT organizations supporting hundreds of production applications becomes a bit more complex. Telling leaders that the organization completed 10 releases and 100 features and saw a 10 percent reduction in the number of defects found in production tells a story but lacks meaningful business context. Sharing metrics and presenting detailed business impacts across a large number of teams is inefficient. Lastly, large IT organizations must also represent work efforts beyond features, such as addressing risk, reducing technical debt, or fixing defects.

Value streams help digital and IT leaders in larger organizations present top-down key performance indicators around business value, strategic drivers, or long-term objectives. The methodology and metrics abstract where and how work gets done, and the leader’s presentation focuses on business-impacting progress. IT leaders also use value streams to present the benefits from “under the hood” investments in technical areas such as architecture, security, or devops.

Defining and mapping value streams to demonstrate business impact

Leaders first must define meaningful value streams. A value stream can represent products, services, or portfolios of them. Some organizations create value streams tied to strategic objectives, such as improving customer experiences, becoming more data-driven, or addressing compliance objectives.

Organizations must develop a shared understanding of customer benefits, and value streams should align and quantify the value delivered. Identifying value streams is often further complicated when organizations evolve their business models through digital transformations. 

Once defined, the next step in the process is known as value stream mapping or connecting value streams to work efforts. In IT organizations, mapping often extends into agile tools to reflect features, stories, and defects and into ITSM tools to capture requests, incidents, and changes. 

This mapping isn’t always a trivial process. If a value stream neatly maps onto one or a few agile teams’ work, and if service desk tickets are tagged accurately, then the mapping rules may have straightforward implementations. But when teams and service desks work across several value streams, the underlying data quality and mapping rules become implementation factors.

The implementation effort and complexities are why many organizations define value streams but don’t take the next steps of implementing value stream mapping. Leaders can use tools such as Lucidchart, SmartDraw, or Creately that have built-in templates and symbols to diagram value streams. Sharing these diagrams with IT and business stakeholders is one way to align everyone on vision and goals.

Implementing value stream mapping and measuring flow

IT organizations that undertake value stream mapping are often interested in measuring flow, cycle times, business impact, and other delivery and quality metrics.

Let’s say there’s a value stream tied to a product with multiple agile development teams working on enhancements and several IT operation teams involved in support functions. Measuring flow shows the steps from the time when features and defects are conceived, shepherded through the development process, and then released to customers. Measuring the timing of each step helps identify process bottlenecks. Teams can also find ways to increase velocity and improve cycle times.

Measuring flow and metrics rolled up to value streams often requires capturing data from multiple systems. An organization may use a tool like Planview for managing the project portfolio, Jira Software for agile team collaboration, Git for capturing code changes, Jenkins for automating CI/CD, Micro Focus UFT One for automating testing, Resolve for infrastructure automation, and Cherwell for managing the IT service desk. These tools capture different steps in feature, defect, risk management, and other flows. Their data must be extracted, joined, and normalized to produce value stream metrics.

One approach is to use a mix of data integration and management tools to centralize the data and then develop dashboards with a BI tool such as Tableau or Power BI. This do-it-yourself approach can be feasible when IT operates with fewer tools and strong IT process governance ensures adequate data quality. But it still requires devoting people to implement and support the data integrations, databases, and dashboards. That’s challenging for most IT organizations that are understaffed to handle the usual business needs and critical technology stewardship and support functions.

The other approach is to buy and integrate solutions. Some possibilities:

Forrester rates other value stream management products from ServiceNow, Plutora, IBM, Targetprocess, ConnectALL, CloudBees, Blueprint Software Systems, and GitLab.

Leveraging value streams to prioritize technology capabilities

The full benefit of value stream management is to ensure that people are working on the more important strategic priorities. Investing in the integrations, tools, and reports to support value stream management also requires changing IT decision making, planning, and execution practices.

Given all the technical disciplines IT needs in order to excel at software delivery, value stream management can help top agile development teams come together on difficult prioritization decisions. Should you invest in CI/CD first or infrastructure as code? Performance testing or more functional test automation? Which applications should IT prioritize for cloud migrations, increased observability, or application modernization?

Value stream mapping can do a lot more than demonstrate alignment and improve productivity. Value streams that clearly define and measure customer impacts are powerful tools to help IT leaders prioritize technical capabilities and establish business value.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.