Value stream thinking

June 22, 02016 · Problem identification Value streams

OK. Here's a big one:

A value stream is a sequence of activities that happen in a certain order—it's the stream of work by which value is created for a customer.

A value stream should:

Your organization has a bunch of value streams. Finding and naming the major value streams by which your organization fulfills its purpose can be hard.2

Value streams are totally agnostic to the divisions, departments, chains of command, and structures within organizations. They start with a request and end with a customer. In the middle: all the handoffs and to'ing-and-fro'ing that occurs—the sending and receiving; the filing and refiling; the approvals and status reporting; the difficult conversations and the easy ones; the thinking, moving, and making—and any of these might cross boundaries within your organization, or involve people from outside the organization.

When I ask people to list the major value streams in their work, the typical first reaction is that someone will recapitulate the org chart. These divisions and structures are contributors to value streams, to be sure—but they're almost never value streams in and of themselves.

The customer's perspective anchors value stream thinking. Does a customer really care how many different departments were involved in creating the value they receive? Ask 'em. In my experience, they're almost always impressed by the complexity of the work, when given the chance to see it. But customers are not there to be impressed. Customers are there for the value they get from the work you do.

Value stream thinking is a way of looking at work that cuts straight through the silos and hierarchies that organizations just fucking love to create.3

Mapping or thinking?

If you've encountered the words "value stream" before, you might have noticed that they're almost always followed by third word: "mapping".

There's a distinction here that's important for us:

Remember this house? (In case you don't.)

Rates of change: Underlying concepts are foundational; ways of thinking can be extended or adjusted over time, with care; the collection of tools used is easy to change, adapt, or discard based on the current situation

Value stream mapping is a big ticket "lean thing" that people can see, copy, and know to ask for. It can be big and splashy, and typically comes with groovy, complex-looking diagrams. It's a tool—an extremely useful one, given the right context.

If you're going to copy something (and you should copy!5), don't copy the tool. Copy the way of thinking. Use the tools to practice the thinking.

If you just copy the tool—by drawing up a bunch of value stream maps, not quite knowing what to do with them, and then wandering away—you might end up wasting a lot of time and treasure, and leave people confused and upset. I've seen this happen and it isn't great. Please don't do this.

That said, if you can get a group of people thinking with value streams, you're really getting somewhere.

How to use value streams

A partial list…

In upcoming items in Improve something today, I'll get more specific about how to get started with value stream thinking, and how to use some of the tools associated with value streams—yes, even value stream mapping.


  1. Key points: (a) customers can be internal or external; (b) we think about value from the customer's perspective.

  2. This is an area where people at different levels of an organization can see things very differently. Getting to agreement on a coherent set of major value streams can be hard, but everybody gets a chance to learn from one another.

  3. Common example from the public sector: one group recieves a request, other groups process the request, and yet another group communicates the result to the end customer. These people may not talk to one another. (They may not be allowed to talk to one another.) They may be in separate buildings. But they are close collaborators in creating the value that is delivered to a specific customer.

  4. Related term: value stream improvement.

  5. A quote, attributed to Aristotle, which I once copied out of a book: "It is not once, nor twice, but times without number, that the same idea makes an appearance in the world."

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