Back to the future of the value stream

/ 20 Mar, 2019

Reflecting on lessons learned using value streams in leading a DevOps transition.

A short history

In the past, technology did not have a dominant share in the products and services of companies. IT was managed in a decentralized manner, and was closely related to the business, directly supporting it. The world was not changing every second and products and services were not digital. Its role was to support the business, and this is why IT was seen as a cost center. Over time, digitalization of products and services slowly started to strengthen the role of IT, which resulted in larger IT departments. At that time, IT was often organized around software delivery value streams* with all required roles and expertise located on the same office floor. When you looked inside these software delivery value stream organizations, they were organized horizontally (frontend, backend, operations, etc.) and in that way they were siloed. Because these silos are often reflected in the software architecture as described in Conway’s Law**, technology was not yet optimized for maximum flow. However, from an organizational perspective, the department was aligned in order to foster a climate of working towards a common goal. Technical dependencies caused by the aforementioned silos were manageable and also aligned for future optimization. These opportunities for optimization made Patrick Debois coin the term DevOps in 2009. The goal of DevOps was to implement changes that would enable the IT department to make steps towards optimizing the speed of high-quality software delivery by bringing development and IT operations closer together. Unfortunately, around the same time the idea of IT as a cost center was being strengthened due to a worldwide economic recession. This forced companies, banks and insurance companies to cut costs. As a result, IT was centralized in shared service centers and centers of excellence that focused on technical disciplines, or it was outsourced. Centralization of IT allowed these companies to optimize the utilization of their resources, but later on it became apparent that this is not optimal when you want to increase the speed of high-quality software delivery.

Conway’s Law

“organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

— M. Conway

Architectures of systems will be designed and shaped in the way that the organization to deliver these systems is shaped. If you have technology value stream teams organized around a frontend application or around backend services or other splits, the architecture will reflect this.

The idea of reversing this is to design the architecture you want, with low coupling and high cohesion and form your technology value streams around that, enabling you to maximize the flow of value.

Back to the future

Nowadays we are living in a world that is changing every second. Because of digitalization everyone and everything is connected with each other. Marc Andreessen’s article on “Software is eating the world”[1] is being confirmed by changes in industries every day. Products and services are largely digital. The idea that “IT is the business” is making its way into the board room. This new mantra is giving IT a leading strategic role in the organization. If you doubt whether this is true, try the following: ask a banking executive what would happen if he would send all his bankers home. Then ask him or her to imagine how long it would take before the bank would be out of business. After that, ask how long this would take if all IT-operations personnel, the people who prevent or solve system failures, would be sent home. Or how long this would take if all software developers were not there, causing a halt to all changes in software required for selling products or for complying with regulations.

In this rapidly changing world, the business and thus IT needs to be able to respond quickly to external developments and threats in order to achieve their business goals. Competitors who are able to add new features more quickly and deliver these to customers faster will outsmart the competition. To be able to keep up, it requires companies to be able to innovate and adapt rapidly, whilst at the same time maintaining high quality and security. The good thing is that the characteristics of software and cloud-facilitated services and infrastructure, on which digital products and services are based, enable this when applied correctly. This is why IT is turning into a profit center instead of a cost center. To be able to maximize the benefits of IT as a strategic innovation driver, the focus needs to be on delivering value, using software delivery value streams, while optimizing its speed and quality. Applying DevOps principles and practices help to realize this.

To help kick-start this optimization, we must identify value stream(s) and choose one to start with. In a way we are reverse engineering to where we came from before the centralization into centers of excellence took place. But in the case of reversing Conway’s Law, the organization and technology value stream teams will have to follow the technology, instead of the technology following the way IT departments are organized. This is because our point of departure is the technology and the teams around it, while focusing on maximum flow of value. In other words: back to the future of the value stream.

[1] Marc Andreessen,

Value stream

Value streams originate from the manufacturing world. It typically covers the entire cycle from a request to delivery. Its sole purpose is to identify value. Value is only added when it is delivered to the requestor. Value streams can be used to identify flows of information and material. After identifying these flows it is important to add a timeline to these flows. Value streams can help identify bottlenecks or even waste in your system. In manufacturing this seems obvious, but one often fails to apply value streams in business and IT processes.

An example of a simple development value stream, covering personas and covering the process from work being identified towards the actual product being deployed in production.

How to carefully select a value stream to start with

With DevOps we concentrate on the software development value streams and the products and services they deliver. As stated in Gene Kim’s DevOps Handbook[1] you should start by carefully selecting your first value stream. This is key because this selection determines the difficulty of the transformation, both technically and culturally. This is important from a change management perspective, because you need to increase your chances on a first success to be able to scale your transformation throughout the organization. In addition, the people leading this DevOps initiative must also be given the opportunity to experiment and learn to do this transformation. The following steps can guide you in selecting the right value stream:

  1. First identify domains that deliver products and services. A way to do this is by looking for logical clusters of applications.
  2. Evaluate these domains on a set of criteria. These criteria cover the areas of people, process and technology. Examples are: importance of time-to-market and ability to innovate, willingness for change, opportunity for quick wins. Creating a weighted score based on these criteria helps you choose and select a domain and value stream you want to focus on.
  3. Identify the software delivery value streams (and their mutual dependencies) delivering products and services in that domain. Design a logical grouping of the capabilities these value streams provide. The technology should be functionally cohesive and not logically cohesive in order to reduce dependencies as much as possible, providing opportunities for maximizing flow.
  4. Staff the team(s) for the value streams of the software delivery. You can use the DASA Competence Framework[2] for guidance on the required hard- and soft skills.

[1] DevOps Handbook

[2] DASA Competence Framework

Setting goals and measuring the effect of your improvements

In short the reasons for adopting DevOps are: being able to produce better products and services, delivered in a faster, and if possible, cheaper manner. Better products and services can be detailed further stating that the products and services need to be of high quality and can be easily adapted to changes in requirements and opportunities for innovation.

However, when do your improvements contribute to these goals? It is known that only one out of three experiments will truly be successful for your value stream. You need to know whether a change you have made was an improvement or not. That is why metrics are a hot topic when applying DevOps principles and practices, and rightfully so.

So far so good. Every well-known DevOps resource points you in that direction. Then the next question is: what metrics to start with and how to measure them. Based on DORA whitepapers[1] we recommend that you start collecting data for four metrics right away that tell you something about delivery speed and product and service quality (see Figure 1 Aspects of software delivery performance (– source: State of DevOps report 2018).

Figure 1 Aspects of software delivery performance (source: State of DevOps report 2018)

Figure 1 Aspects of software delivery performance (source: State of DevOps report 2018)

The count of releases to production, the changes the release contains and the number of reported incidents are metrics that are often already registered or available in a change and incident

management system in a non-DevOps world. Or these metrics are part of your team’s backlog in an Agile planning and CI/CD system like Azure DevOps***. The time of incident creation and the time of incident closure following a release can be registered, and this allows you to calculate the time to restore. The same is true for the number of releases to a specific environment. For the change failure rate, the relation between these two data entities, a release and an incident, needs to be made. A quick and easy way to do this is to look at the creation dates of both, and relate them to each other in that way. This leaves us with the lead time for changes. For automatically calculating this, the basic CI/CD pipeline needs to be implemented (as mentioned earlier) to be able to collect this data easily. The work item administration will be the main source for the required data.

[1] Accelerate: State of DevOps 2018

Forecasting the value of DevOps Transformations

Azure DevOps Metrics

Azure DevOps, previously known as Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS), offers functionality for visualizing metrics. These extensions are available through the marketplace.

Figure 2 Sample Lead Time graph

Figure 2 Sample Lead Time graph

Figure 2 shows a sample Lead Time metrics chart available in Azure DevOps, using the Analytics extension from the marketplace.

For more information on Cycle Time and Lead Time, see: using the Analytics extension

Having these metrics in-place before the transformation allows you to forecast what benefits your DevOps initiative can bring. It also allows you to periodically measure whether your improvement experiments are contributing to this. From here you can add additional metrics as you see fit. You get the most value out of these metrics when they are measured over the integrated work across all teams on a product. It is important to note that these metrics do not measure individual or team performance, but are value stream-related.

What’s next? Value stream mapping and continuous improvement

When we have our first technology value stream and have put the foundation for metrics in-place, it is time to adopt a continuous improvement process as a vehicle for making improvements. Or enhance this process if it is already there. The basis for this is creating a value stream map for the development value stream.

Figure 3 Continuous improvement cycle

Figure 3 Continuous improvement cycle

The value stream map will show the roles of people who take part in the software delivery value stream from requirement until monitoring a product in production. It shows which tasks they execute to make this possible. The process to depict this will already be of help, because it allows us insight into what is required to get software into production. The next thing they will learn is where any inefficiencies occur in their work. In other words, it will expose bottlenecks that prevent a reduction in time-to-market and an increase in delivering quality. This gives them input for experimenting with improvements that reduce these bottlenecks. The metrics data will clarify whether an improvement had the impact that was expected. Basic metrics need to be available from the start as explained, but based on a specific improvement, these metrics can be extended as required, as part of the continuous cycle.

Three take-aways

Of course, the steps explained in this article are just a few highlights of what is necessary to get a DevOps transformation up and running. For example, we did not discuss giving people a DevOps foundation through training, or the steps required to change management behavior. The focus was on the elements that are related to the value stream. The three things you should take away after reading this article are as follows:


  1. To determine where to start your DevOps transformation process, create a matrix of domains that you have identified. In this matrix you score each of the criteria that you think are important to arrive at a value stream selection. These criteria should take people, process and technology into account. It will tell you something about the relative amount of resistance to change that you can expect in the value stream teams, and how this value stream will benefit from technology optimization. It will also show the importance of time-to-market and innovation for the business of this value stream. The weighted score of this matrix will lead you to your first value stream and will enable you to start your DevOps transformation initiative.
  2. Before you start making improvements with your value stream, make sure you can report the following four metrics:
    1. Deployment frequency
    2. Lead time for changes
    3. Time to restore service
    4. Change failure rate

This will allow you to continually track progress towards the goals you have set. It is important to be able to measure your own success, but it is also important to be able to show your success to higher-level management. So, start by making an analysis of the raw data currently available in your release and ITIL management systems. If this data is insufficient, then make improvements before you start optimizing your value stream with DevOps principles and practices.

  1. The value stream map is the heartbeat of your continuous improvement process. Adopting a continuous improvement process with teams allows them to make any change required in a structured and measured way. The first step is to create a value stream map of your software delivery value stream. The bottlenecks that are identified can be prioritized based on the aspect that has the most added value for achieving particular business goals. You should update your value stream map on a regular basis, for example every three months.

This article is part of XPRT. magazine #7.
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