Bottlenecks and Value Stream Mapping in Agile

A bottleneck in Agile work is probably what you think. It is the area of least flow. Optimizations made elsewhere can’t increase the overall flow of the system unless the bottleneck is addressed first. We discover bottlenecks via Value Stream Mapping.

A value stream map can grow in complexity to model complex relationships, but here we only need a very, very simple implementation: To get what we need, it’s simply the flow of a product from idea to customer, divided up any way you like along that flow, with a number of days where that division is actively adding value written over the number of days the product is in that division. You may have done this already in your work.


Here is an example from Team WIKISPEED: Converting our halogen headlights to LEDs. The LED headlights start with researching the road legal laws for headlights, then researching headlights that meet the spec, then purchasing, then mounting them, then wiring them, then testing them for compliance with the road-legal specification. In that flow, lets say we find out that one headlight is burnt out at the end during test. We can move testing to right after purchasing to avoid wasted work. We also found the “researching LED headlights that meet the road legal specification” task on our Scrum board/Kanban board hung out in “doing” for 17 days, but actually only had 1 hour of research done. Finally, 17 days later, and we were able to move it to done. We’ve recognized an opportunity to increase flow by calling for a swarm, adding a resource, or escalating the priority of that task.

Where we find work queing up in a given division, we have found a bottleneck. In this case, maybe the research was waiting for the Product Owner to give more information about whether we were assuming EU or U.S. light distribution patterns initially. One way we can help alleviate the bottleneck in this case is by moving the Kanban board somewhere both the team and Product Owner see while they are working, and adding a red box above the backlog labeled “waiting for Product Owner feedback”. This might help the Product Owner have enough information to prioritize their work based on what the team needs to flow.

When done well, a Scrum board, a sprint planning board, or a Kanban board can be a value stream map of the team’s part of the overall business flow, updated during each daily standup meeting. When this happens, the ScrumMaster is armed with the information they need to select the right retrospective tool and guide the team’s continuos improvement to the very high levels of performance for whcih Agile is becoming famous.

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