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May 28, 2024

Understanding Work as a Flow: Optimizing Your Value Stream

By Steve Pereira ,Andrew Davis

We Can Only Improve What We See

The primary challenge in business is how to enable a group of people to work together effectively to deliver value to customers. Value is defined as benefit compared with cost. Large organizations tend to organize people into functional groups and hand work across in a sort of relay race from customer need to customer satisfaction. The problem with these functional silos is they end up operating not as a single relay team but as entirely separate teams that train independently and may have differing goals.

Silos are effective for personnel management but not for cross-organizational flow.

Imagine a relay race where each runner on the team trained alone and then showed up hoping for smooth handoffs mid-race. Not only is that relay team unlikely to perform well, but each racer on the team is also likely to focus mostly on their own performance. Training and measuring independently implies a lack of visibility into what everyone else is doing and how all the contributions come together to deliver value. Runners may spend many hours perfecting their stride but fumble the handoff, which is an order of magnitude more impactful on the ultimate performance of the team.

If we can only improve what we can see and we can only see a subset of the overall flow of work, all our effort could be wasted in comparison to addressing the weakest link in the chain of activities. If our visibility is limited to a subset of the work process, we will direct improvement efforts there. But if we fail to address the real constraint, our targeted improvements won’t matter at best and could make things worse.

The Value Stream

In The Great Transition, James Martin says, “A value stream is an end-to-end collection of activities that creates a result for a ‘customer,’ who may be the ultimate customer or an internal ‘end user’ of the value stream.” The scope of a value stream is the complete loop from customer need to customer satisfaction. A value stream represents a complete cybernetic control system, consisting of a customer target, a change implementation, and feedback processing.

Optimizing the value stream requires looking at this end-to-end work process to increase value delivery while reducing costs such as delay. By more effectively chaining together the work of each contributor, we approach a state where a single piece of work “flows” without interruption for the benefit of a customer.

Value stream optimization goes beyond optimization efforts that focus only on narrow segments of the workflow. For example, Agile principles and practices arose within the software development community to improve flow and customer centricity. Agile improved outcomes but put pressure on downstream deployment, infrastructure, and operations. DevOps later emerged as a solution to address that downstream handoff and accelerated delivery while improving outcomes. 

Value stream optimization transcends DevOps to include the full process of delivering value to customers. Improving flow within a single value stream will shift the constraint elsewhere. Using the value stream as a model, we can see opportunities to accelerate and improve outcomes across the entire flow from customer need to customer satisfaction.

Making Flow Visible

To manage and optimize the flow of work, we must first see the flow of work. To reason about work effectively, we need to create a simple model that represents this flow. In a large-scale working environment, no individual has the full picture. That means we need to pool data and our individual knowledge to create this model.

To do this, we engage in Value Stream Mapping, creating a visual representation of the value stream based on our collective understanding. By mapping the value stream, we can measure performance and identify improvement opportunities. Effectively, we are building a representative model that is easy to see and understand so we can manage a process that is otherwise invisible.

In cybernetic terms, this is the act of creating a control system, a concept we’ll return to later in the book. On this basis, we can learn and adapt to improve value delivery over time.

The classic Value Stream Map originated as a “Material and Information Flow” diagram within the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS is a revolutionary approach to running an organization that led Toyota to dominate the auto industry beginning in the 1980s. Central to TPS is the idea of kaizen, or continuous improvement. This practice was summarized by Mike Rother as the Improvement Kata in his seminal book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results.

The Improvement Kata is a four-step pattern of establishing a target condition, grasping the current condition, establishing the next target, and iteratively working toward that target. The Improvement Kata itself is a cybernetic loop, focused on continuous adjustment while navigating toward a target goal.

This pattern is repeated in some of the most influential frameworks of the modern day.

Flow Engineering is a set of practices that builds on the foundations of cybernetics and the Toyota Production System to provide a lightweight and iterative way of building value, clarity, and flow. Armed with these techniques for groups of people to externalize and evolve their understandings, we can develop clear focus to facilitate collective action.


This post is adapted from the book Flow Engineering: From Value Stream Mapping to Effective Action by Steve Pereira and Andrew Davis.

- About The Authors
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Steve Pereira

Steve Pereira has spent over two decades improving the flow of work across organizations. He’s worked through tech support, IT management, build and release engineering, and as a founding CTO for enterprise SaaS. He serves as lead consultant for Visible Value Stream Consulting, as a board advisor to the Value Stream Management Consortium, Chair of the OASIS Value Stream Management Interoperability technical committee, and co-founder of the Flow Collective to bring flow-focused professionals together. Since 2017, he has been developing and facilitating Flow Engineering to make flow improvement in large organizations accessible, collaborative, and actionable.

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Andrew Davis

Andrew is Chief Product Officer at AutoRABIT, focused on the next generation of DevSecOps on the Salesforce platform. He is also the author of the leading book on the Salesforce development lifecycle, Mastering Salesforce DevOps. He was formerly Senior Director of Methodology and Training at Copado.

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