What is a Value Stream Network?

This article was originally written as a contribution to a collective post for the VSM Consortium blog (find the full article using the link below):
https://www.vsmconsortium.org/blog/what-is-a-value-stream-network (August 22, 2023)

This post will discuss a critical and often unseen aspect of value stream management, the Value Stream Network. 

Towards Value Streams as Autonomous as Possible

The organization of small cross-functional product teams (stream-aligned teams) aims to accelerate their value stream.
The key is to ensure their autonomy by empowering them to make decisions
and do all the work necessary to quickly build and evolve the product they own (build and run teams).

The first steps of the VSM Implementation Roadmap identify the functions involved throughout the value stream, from ideation to delivery of the product to the customer, as well as the links with other internal or external value streams:

  • Organize – The idea of designing product teams of less than 10 people very quickly raises the question of their possible autonomy. Will they be able to handle the cognitive load covering all business and technological aspects? Will they have the capacity to combine all the necessary expertise within their teams, or can they be helped and supported by setting up platforms, enabling, and complicated subsystem teams?
  • Map – Value stream mapping teaches us to see not only the sequence of value-creating activities but also the real interconnections between individuals and entities within our organizations.

As soon as a Value Stream Mapping workshop is prepared or started, it’s often clear that a value stream involves many different actors, and that few or no one really knows how the whole stream works.

There are various reasons why a value stream does not find itself independent from the rest of the company:
need for expertise or task completion, product architecture, access to a shared resource, etc.
Value streams and their teams are not independent but interconnected.
Their connections can be stronger or weaker due to their respective missions and the type of their interactions.

On the other hand, we can strive to make them as autonomous as possible, so that they are able to meet their challenges without having to wait unnecessarily because of external dependencies with other teams or value streams.

Company-level Systems Thinking of Value Streams

Value Stream Thinking means always thinking of the system as a whole, to avoid focusing on local optimizations that don’t really benefit the whole. End-to-end value stream optimization is based on this principle, which is taken up in the first of the Three Ways of DevOps.

However, if we treat a value stream as a single entity without addressing its relationships to its ecosystem, we can fall into the same pitfalls of not seeing the forest for the trees.

We may be tempted to limit our analysis to what is in our power, on our internal territory. But is it really worth trying to save hours or minutes on software delivery engineering, if an external dependency regularly blocks us for days or weeks?

It is therefore crucial to be able to go up to the enterprise level
and visualize the network of value streams with their interconnections.

Visualize the Value Stream Network

Value streams can be of different types, with value streams aligned with the products to be delivered to customers (stream-aligned teams or core value streams) and others supporting them by making platforms available to them in the form of services (platform teams or supportive value streams).

As we indicated in our previous post “Is Platform Engineering a Value Stream?” and as Steve explained earlier, it is possible to use the models proposed by Team Topologies to design or redefine our organization of teams and their interactions.

There are other techniques to visualize these value stream networks, but they don’t seem to me to be very widespread or fully supported by tool-based solutions yet:

  • High-level mapping of value streams to represent their interconnections;
  • Modeling our enterprise architecture with the alignment of value streams with business domains, their contributions to the customer journey, and their interrelationships.

Focus on Dependencies that Impede the Flow

Visualizing the value stream network is not an end in itself! The goal remains to streamline activities by identifying dependencies that impede the rapid flow of value. In this case, it is a question of removing the main constraint of our system on which we must focus our improvement efforts.

“A dependency is just a blocker that hasn’t happened yet. When a team is blocked by a dependency, work sits needlessly idle.”

Troy Magennis

Interestingly, new tools are emerging to go beyond managing a list of dependencies. Data-driven, they concretely help identify the most impactful blockages that are slowing flows between teams across the value stream network represented in the form of a dynamic graph:

Figure –  Predictability360 (in beta) visualizes the days lost by teams blocking other teams

Picture Credits:  Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

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