Many in the Agile community criticize companies’ leadership for not understanding Agile. However, much of this is that many agilists don’t talk to them in a manner that executives are interested in. Executives don’t want to learn Flow, Lean, or the Theory of Constraints. I suggest a better way of communicating Agile is by talking to them about value streams and value stream networks in a way that makes sense for them. Here’s an example

Consultant: Hi. I know you’ve heard a lot about how companies are adopting Lean and Agile methods. But instead of talking about methods, I’d like to talk about what we, as an organization, want to accomplish. So let me start by asking you what you’re interested in.

Executive:  Well, I’d say the top things I’m concerned about are:

  1. Innovating for our customers
  2. Avoiding the waste of developing products that are not useful
  3. Being able to quickly deliver value at a reasonable cost
  4. Being able to provide a great customer experience with both the products and the supporting service
  5. Having an effective sales organization
  6. Creating an excellent environment for our employees to work in

I would expand customer service to customer experience. And I would also include something about time to market or responding to change. Sleep creating value at a reasonable cost isn’t good enough if it’s 2 years late.


Consultant: Great. Let’s look at these and see how we can help. First, what does innovating for your customers mean regarding your services and products?

Executive: Well, regarding our products, I’d like them to add value to our customers beyond what they might be expecting.

Consultant: What would that look like?

Executive: Well, they would find themselves using our products in better ways – making their lives easier.

Consultant: You mean that they’d find themselves working differently? In a way that they’d find is better and easier?

Executive: Exactly.

Consultant: To introduce a term, this workflow you’re describing is called the customer value stream. It describes a customer’s path from starting to get value until achieving it. You’d like to be able to improve how they do this.

Executive: Yes, but how can I do that?

Consultant: Well, first of all, we need to make explicit that that’s what we want to do, and you just did that. We use the term “customer value stream” to all share a common language and know what we mean by that.

Executive: OK, that makes sense, but I can’t control what our customers do, so how do I improve their value stream?

Consultant: This is a two-step process. First, as you’ve just stated, we must recognize that we’re trying to improve our customers’ value streams. Our method of doing this is to create our products and services to improve their value streams when our customers interact with them.  This “interaction” is called the customer journey.

Executive: OK, that makes sense. So we have our development teams focus on how our customers’ value streams can be improved, and we design our systems to improve customer journeys. Sounds good, but it also sounds expensive.

Consultant: Yes, at first, it sounds like we’re doing more work. But there are lessons to be learned in improving our customers’ value streams and how we improve our own. Let’s consider things customers like and don’t like. First, what do customers think about waiting between the steps they have to take?

Executive: They don’t like it.

Consultant: Exactly. Eliminating delays in a customer’s workflow is a good idea. Now, consider what happens when your developers work, and things get delayed. Say, one person needs to talk to another person, but that person isn’t available.

Executive: This will cause frustration, but it’ll likely cause extra work because of multi-tasking.

Consultant: It will also cause delays in getting feedback about if we’re working on creating the right innovation. The more delays, the greater the time to get value. And if we make a mistake, we won’t detect it for a longer time than if we didn’t have these delays.

Executive: Can’t we tell our people to work faster?

Consultant: Sure, but consider this. Are they not likely working as fast as they can? Pushing them harder will create errors.

Executive: I don’t know; a little pressure is often good.

Consultant: And I’m not saying it isn’t. But consider the time from starting an improvement until it’s completed. I’ve been watching your people and can see they are busy. But I suspect that precisely because they are busy the work is waiting around.

Executive: What do you mean?

Consultant: Well, consider this. Someone starts working on something and needs help from someone else who is working on several things. Is this other person likely to be available?

Executive: No, actually, the more they are working on to get more done, the person asking for their help will have to wait longer until they have time to get to them.

Consultant: Exactly, and while they are waiting, they start something else, so the piece of work they made the request for …

Executive: just sits there for a while. Hm, I see. So what do we do about this?

Consultant: The trick is not to get people to work faster but to eliminate the delays, as much as possible, in the workflow – that is, the development value stream.

Executive: But the work in the development area isn’t a stream. Things go back and forth, across teams, all over the place.

Consultant: Yes, very perceptive. That’s why we call it the development value stream network.

Executive: OK, let me get this straight. To innovate, we need to improve how our customers work. We call that their value stream, or the customer value stream. To influence this, we attend to how they interact with our systems, which we call the customer journey. We need to improve our development value stream networks by removing delays in them. This speeds up feedback and value delivery. Have I got it right?

Consultant: Yes. Now we’ll leave how to do this for another day. But there are still other types of value streams.

Executive: This is beginning to sound a little complicated.

Consultant: Well, there is a fair amount to learn. But all of these value streams have a lot in common. And there are straightforward ways to start.

Executive: So what other value streams are involved?

Consultant: Consider what internal work you do. You have groups to market, sell, deploy, support, etc., the products. Each group has its own value streams. We call these operational value streams.  You also have value streams for legal, HR, etc. All of your value streams should be about creating value for your customers and/or your employees.

Executive: All should work to provide value quickly, without delay or wasted effort.

Consultant: Let’s look at that list you gave me at the start:

  1. Innovating for our customers
  2. Avoiding the waste of developing products that are not useful
  3. Being able to quickly deliver value at a reasonable cost
  4. Being able to provide a great customer experience with both the products and the supporting service
  5. Having an effective sales organization
  6. Creating an excellent environment for our employees to work in

Notice how value streams help the first five of these directly. We get innovation by attending to customers. We can lower the waste of developing products that are not useful by getting quick feedback. Reducing delays reduces waste – in building new products and customer service and sales.

Now consider this, what would it feel like to work in an environment where you weren’t wasting time waiting for others?

Executive: It’d be great.

Consultant: Then we’ve covered them all.

Executive: Is there more to this value stream stuff?

Consultant: Yes, quite a bit. Consider how people will be able to align when they all understand we’re interested in value add. This is a holistic view. Everyone can recognize their role in the bigger picture. We can also use what we know about value streams to see where and how to improve them.

Executive: How do we do that?

Consultant: There are a couple of ways. The most common way is what is called value stream mapping. In value stream mapping, we draw out all of the steps of the value streams.

Executive: Sounds like that takes a lot of time.

Consultant: It can. That’s why we’ve come up with another way. We call it the idealized value stream.

Executive: Why do you call it that?

Consultant: We’ve discovered, after looking at hundreds of companies, that the core way they should be working is similar. This core, of course, doesn’t include certain things that may be particular to them, such as FDA regulation or working with hardware groups. But even in these cases, the core work is the same, and regulation and hardware are just additional requirements on what to do. Knowing this enables us to look at what we should be doing and contrasting it with what we are doing, and quickly see how we need to improve.

Executive: And everyone can get on board because we’re all united around adding value, supporting it, and being efficient?

Consultant: Yes. And there’s a surprising advantage. Even though people need to accomplish the same thing, the way they do it can be done while attending to their situation. This enables people to self-organize while fitting into the bigger picture.

Executive:  Very cool. You’ll have to teach me more later.


More to read: Why Leaders Should Focus on Value Streams

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