Jun 04, 2020  

Lean tools for identifying waste and improving performance

Lean tools for identifying waste and improving performance

We regularly work with clients looking to transform their business or software delivery organisation. A common goal for senior managers is to reduce the time it takes to ship product improvements to customers, but the key to unlocking improvements and unleashing your team’s potential is often unclear.

Typically, no single change will dramatically improve an organisation’s output. Instead, a series of small improvements often lead to improved pace. It is essential to ensure the correct solutions are identified and prioritised. Just as important, is bringing your teams on the journey. This will ensure there are no feelings resentment towards a new approach. Additionally, your teams will own the changes, and in time a process of continual improvement will be established.

Speeding up delivery is primarily about identifying and removing waste, which in turn reduces cycle times allowing high-value products to be shipped to customers quickly – the core of lean. In this blog, I wanted to give a brief overview of two techniques from lean that ensure you take a holistic approach to identifying waste so that you can target the actual problems rather than the symptoms.

Value Stream Mapping – Identifying waste, speeding up cycle times and improving efficiency:

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a lean tool which is fantastic at identifying waste during value creation. If applied correctly, it can foster a culture of continuous improvement and dramatically cut cycle times, speeding up the rate at which ideas can be turned into solutions that are then shipped to production.

VSM maps out the activities involved in delivering value to a customer. To be most effective, VSM should be applied to an organisation as a whole. It is often one of the first activities I carry out when working with a new team.  The VSM is conducted with the key stakeholders and decision-makers at each step of the process. It gathers quantitative and qualitative information about the waste generated during the process. By quantifying this waste, it is possible to work with the teams to prioritise solutions using evidence and prevent low priority improvements from being introduced.

Primary metrics collected during a VSM:

  • Lead Time (LT): the actual time taken to complete the step including interruptions
  • Process Time (PT): the amount of time taken to complete the step if uninterrupted
  • Correct and Accurate (CA): the percentage of work which is usable as-is from the perspective of the next step.

Once you combine this data it’s possible to see the total cycle time (delivery time), the time wasted, and the CA figure for the organisation as a whole – a measure of quality.

Simple Value Stream Map:
Value Stream Map showing a simple worked example of a challenge within a delivery process

In the example above, the correct and accurate percent for the whole steam is 10%. This is calculated by multiplying the CA of each process together. The process step with the biggest issue is the Release to Production Step with a CA of 20%. This means that only 20% of the releases to production are successfully completed. Investigating the root cause of this low CA value and solving the problem is likely to have significant benefits for the organisation as a whole.

By using this as a tool to facilitate changes, it is possible to make a significant improvement to your organisation. It should be repeated regularly to ensure the improvements have delivered value and identify new areas for reducing waste.

Five Whys – understanding the real causes of a problem

During a VSM exercise, many symptoms of waste will be identified. It is essential to determine the actual root causes rather than just the symptoms. This way, long-lasting solutions will be put in place.  The ‘Five Whys’ technique (literally asking “why?” five times), when applied correctly, helps walk through a problem iteratively ultimately identifying the root cause.

Five Whys worked example:

Problem: The release team regularly fail to successfully deploy code to production (low correct and accurate percentage from VSM)

Why? – The release steps are difficult to follow

Why? – The release notes are complex containing many manual steps

Why? – There is no deployment automation

Why? – The delivery team have never prioritised doing this work

Why? – The Product Owner has not understood the impact of the release issues

Why? – The Product Owner’s team do not own the release   Root cause

Countermeasure – transfer release ownership to the team and prioritise the automation of the release process.

As you can see from this example, if the analysis had stopped too early, the countermeasure might have been to improve the release notes or other sub-optimal solutions which would only have solved the symptoms of the problem.

It’s not necessary to have exactly five whys; you stop when continuing to ask why produces no more useful answers.

I hope that by using these techniques, you will be able to identify the real causes of waste in your delivery teams and prioritise the correct solutions. If used regularly, you will lower the cost of delivering value to your customers and speed up cycle times so that you can stay ahead.

Sam Rapley


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