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How value stream mapping, Kanban, queue management rival automation

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Gene Kim DevOps Enthusiast, Independent
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In the DevOps community, many of the amazing improvements in lead times are achieved through deployment automation, Infrastructure as Code (IaC), and other advanced applications of automation in the operations portion of the value stream.

However, there is another class of improvement stories that I think are amazing, precisely because they achieve the same sorts of lead time improvements without automation. Instead, they use techniques such as value stream mapping, Kanbans, and rigorous queue management.

Going with the flow

One of my favorite stories in this category came from Courtney Kissler and the team at Nordstrom. As with many teams, they used value stream mapping to gain a sufficient understanding of how value is delivered to the customer: what work is performed and by whom, and what steps can they take to improve flow.

Over the years, they learned that one of the most efficient ways to start improving any value stream is to conduct a workshop with all of the major stakeholders and perform a value stream mapping exercise; a process designed to help capture all the steps required to create value.

Beyond the cosmetic fix: Blaming the mainframe

Kissler’s favorite example of the valuable and unexpected insights that can come from value stream mapping is when they tried to improve the long lead times associated with requests going through the Cosmetics Business Office application, a mainframe application, written in COBOL, that supported all the floor and department managers of their in-store beauty and cosmetic departments.

This application let department managers register new salespeople for various product lines carried in their stores so that they could track sales commissions, enable vendor rebates, and so forth.

Kissler explained:

I knew this particular mainframe application well. Earlier in my career, I supported this technology team, so I know firsthand that for nearly a decade, during each annual planning cycle, we would debate about how we needed to get this application off the mainframe. Of course, as in most organizations, even when there was full management support, we never seemed to get around to migrating it.

My team wanted to conduct a value stream mapping exercise to determine whether the COBOL application really was the problem, or maybe there was a larger problem that we needed to address. They conducted a workshop that assembled everyone with any accountability for delivering value to our internal customers, including our business partners, the mainframe team, the shared service teams, and so forth.

What they discovered was that, when department managers were submitting the ‘product line assignment’ request form, we were asking them for an employee number, which they didn’t have—so they would either leave it blank or put in something like ‘I don’t know.’ Worse, in order to fill out the form, department managers would have to inconveniently leave the store floor in order to use a PC in the back office. The end result was all this wasted time, with work bouncing back and forth in the process.

During the workshop, the participants conducted several experiments, including deleting the employee number field in the form and letting another department get that information in a downstream step. These experiments, conducted with the help of department managers, showed a four-day reduction in processing time.

The team later replaced the PC application with an iPad app, which allowed managers to submit the necessary information without leaving the store floor. Processing time was reduced to seconds.

She said proudly:

“With those amazing improvements, all the demands to get this application off the mainframe disappeared. Furthermore, other business leaders took notice, and started coming to us with a whole list of further experiments they wanted to conduct with us in their own organizations. Everyone in the business and technology teams was excited by the outcome because they solved a real business problem and, most importantly, they learned something in the process.”

Courtney will be speaking at the DevOps Enterprise Summit this November.

Read more about the Nordstrom case study, as well as more than 40 others in  “The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations,” a newly released book authored by Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, John Willis and Gene Kym. You can download the free, 130-page excerpt here.

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