Maximizing the Flow of Value

In a recent Humanizing Work Show episode, we talked about the benefits of making things more visible so you, your colleagues, and your leaders can fix problems and exploit opportunities. One of our favorite things to make visible is the flow of value from idea to results.

It’s easy to get focused on optimizing pieces of a larger system. You see what’s not working for you, so you make changes to try to make it work better. But those changes might make things worse somewhere else in the system. To maximize the flow of value, it’s essential to optimize things at the level of the whole system, not the parts. And the best way to get started doing that is to make the system visible.

The classic tool for this is the Value Stream Map. Value Stream Mapping comes originally from Toyota and became an important tool in Lean Manufacturing. It’s been around a while. There are conventions around icons and formatting. And all that can be overwhelming.

Good news. You don’t need all of that. There’s an 80/20 version.

80/20 Value Stream Mapping

Here’s how to do just enough Value Stream Mapping to be able to identify high-leverage changes you can make to maximize the flow of value through your work system…

(Let’s assume you’re doing a value stream map for delivery of valuable software features. You’ll need to adapt this a bit if what represents value in your context is different.)

Gather a cross-functional group around a whiteboard (real or virtual, like Miro).

Agree on a concrete example of a recent feature that made it all the way to production and that customers are now experiencing value from. Capture that feature at the top of your whiteboard to keep the conversation focused.

Now, put a sticky note on the right along the lines of “Customers are using the feature.” Together, work your way back from there, asking, “What happened right before that?” and adding stickies to describe the sequence of events until you get all the way back to however the idea for that feature emerged.

Next, choose another feature and test the map to see if it works for that feature. Make adjustments as needed. Repeat until you feel like you have a good sense of the typical flow and variations.

Now, it’s time to start layering in more information. You might color code sticky notes for individuals or teams. You might add icons for queues where work sits and waits. You might annotate steps with how long they typically take (including wait times, not just active work).

Don’t try to make your map perfect—there’s naturally going to be variation in your system—but try to get to a point where the cross-functional group is comfortable saying, “Yeah, this is how it works most of the time.”

Once you’ve made your value stream visible, use the map to look for ways to improve the flow of value. A few common things to look for:

  • Where are there long-running tasks or long wait times? Those often represent a constraint. The Five Focusing Steps from the Theory of Constraints is a great tool to increase throughput at a constraint.
  • Where are there feedback loops or rework? A common example is development and QA sitting on separate teams. Dev hands off to QA. QA finds issues and sends work back. Dev makes changes and hands off to QA again… Where there’s a feedback loop, especially a long one, that’s a place you can often improve the flow of value by getting people collaborating more closely.
  • Where is there lots of variability in the system? This could be multiple paths an item could take, or it could be high variability in the duration of a step. You can often increase the flow of value by looking for ways to reduce variability (e.g., slicing features smaller).
  • Want us to facilitate a working session with your group to visualize your value stream and make recommendations to maximize the flow of value through your work system? Schedule a discovery call on the contact page at to see if there’s a good fit.

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