DevOps process: Visibility of work in the value stream

Visibility of work represents the extent to which teams have a good understanding of the flow of work from the business all the way through to customers, and whether they have visibility into this flow, including the status of products and features. Visibility of work is part of a wider group of capabilities that represent lean product management; these capabilities include working in small batches, team experimentation, and visibility into customer feedback. These capabilities predict both software delivery performance and organizational performance (which is measured in terms of profitability, market share, and productivity).

How to implement work visibility

Teams that are proficient at this capability have the following characteristics:

  • The team understands how work moves through the business from idea to customer, including products or features.
  • The team has visibility into the flow of this work.
  • The flow of work, including its current state, is shown on visual displays or dashboards.
  • Information about the flow of product development work across the whole value stream is readily available.

Use value stream mapping to understand how work flows

Understanding how work moves through the product or feature development value stream is an essential step in improving workflow. A useful technique is value stream mapping (VSM). You can create a value stream map by gathering stakeholders from every part of the product development value stream: the business line, design, testing, QA, operations, and support. You break the value stream into 5 to 15 process blocks. In each block, you record the activity that's performed, along with the team that performs it, as shown in the following diagram:

Value stream showing 9 stages from customer to product deployment.

Source: Lean Enterprise (O'Reilly) by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, and Barry O'Reilly, 2014

Next, you analyze the state of work within the value stream, gathering the information to determine barriers to flow. In particular, for each process block, you measure the following key metrics:

  • Lead time: the time from the point a process accepts a piece of work to the point it hands that work off to the next downstream process.
  • Process time: the time it would take to complete a single item of work if the person performing it had all the necessary information and resources to complete it and could work uninterrupted.
  • Percent complete and accurate (%C/A): the proportion of times that a process receives something from an upstream process that it can use without requiring rework.

You always record the state of the processes as they really are on the day the exercise is performed. Make sure that you determine the actual metrics, not what people would like the metrics to be.

The following diagram shows an example of the final output:

Value stream stages with notes about each stage and an overall timeline.

Source: Lean Enterprise (O'Reilly) by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, and Barry O'Reilly, O'Reilly, 2014.

Look for process blocks that produce poor quality work, which then require a lot of downstream rework (reflected in a low %C/A in the downstream process block), and for processes that have long lead times relative to the process time.

It's important to work with stakeholders to create a future-state value stream map that reflects the optimal state of the value stream at some future date (for example, in 6 months to 2 years). Stakeholders should also agree to re-run the exercise on a regular schedule (for example, every 6 months) to review the current state and to review progress.

A detailed discussion of VSM is out of scope for this document; for more information, we recommend Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation by Karen Martin and Mike Osterling.

Visualize the current state of work

VSM can depict how work moves through the product development value stream from idea to customer. But to get ongoing visibility into the flow of this work, you need a more dynamic view. For software development, you can use a card wall, a storyboard, or a Kanban board like the one shown in the following diagram.

Kanban board.

Source: "Kanban for Ops" board game, Dominica DeGrandis, 2013.

Using visual displays such as this, and creating of WIP limits to manage flow, are detailed in the articles on WIP limits and visual management.

Finally, the mapping should include information about the responsibilities of each team, along with statistical data on key metrics such as lead time, deploy frequency, and %C/A.

Common pitfalls with work visibility

Some common obstacles to implementing work visibility include the following:

  • Overestimating the state of organizational knowledge. In any organization, nobody has a good view into the whole value stream. When a company puts together a value stream mapping exercise, it's important to gather people from across the value stream to perform the exercise. There is often surprise as people find out what actually goes on in other parts of the organization.

  • Failing to map the entire value stream. It's important to map the complete value stream from idea (whether that's a line of business, the product marketing department, or internal customers) through to IT operations and the people who support the product or service being mapped. The increased visibility and alignment that results, along with the shared understanding, are extremely valuable. Failure to map the entire value stream can lead to local optimizations and missed opportunities to improve processes in key areas that have an impact on the entire organization.

  • Focusing on the wrong areas for improvement. Improving efficiency in areas that aren't bottlenecks won't have much impact on overall lead times, and can make things worse. Companies should of course improve in all areas, but there's no point in investing substantial effort in an effort that won't have organization-level outcomes.

  • Not granting authority to make changes. People involved in the effort must have the authority to make changes to achieve the future state. If these people must try to persuade others in the organization, the exercise is unlikely to succeed.

In addition, make sure you look at common obstacles in the articles on WIP limits and visual management. Many of them apply in this context too.

Ways to improve work visibility

  • Provide tools for visualizing and recording workflow. Start with making sure the team has visual management displays that show their work and its flow through the part of the value stream that is closest to them, including both the upstream and downstream parts of the process. Record how long it takes work to get through the process, and how often rework must be performed because the team didn't get it right the first time. This will uncover your early and best opportunities for improvement at the team level.

  • Create a value stream map. Work with other teams to perform a value-stream mapping exercise to discover how work flows from idea to customer outcome, and report the VSM metrics (lead time, process time, %C/A) for each process block. Have the team prepare a future-state value stream map and work to implement it.

  • Share artifacts. Make sure the artifacts from these exercises are available to everyone in the organization, and that they are updated at least annually.

Ways to measure work visibility

To determine the effectiveness of the team's visibility to the work in the value stream, ask these questions:

  • Is there a current or recent value stream map available to anyone in the organization?
  • Does everybody in the organization have access to a visual display that shows what they're working on and the status of their work?
  • Are statistics on metrics such as lead time and %C/A available to the team?

What's next