Backyard VSM – Bettering the Basics is not for the Birds

  • February 22, 2023
A bird at a birdfeeder

This Christmas, I received a beautiful birdhouse handmade from wood and metal reclaimed from barns and houses in southern Indiana. I wonder what kind of bird it's for? Looking for a place to hang the birdhouse, I see two active bird feeders in two different trees and fascinating bird behaviors. I'll come back to this in just a bit.

When I think about value stream management (and organizations wanting to improve the delivery of better value with better quality at better cost with better speed to market and a better understanding of customer demand, and better responsiveness to that demand), I think about “better,” I think of the basics. How great are we at the “basics,” really? Defining and applying what my friend, Brandon Call, refers to as “bettering” requires going back to the basics. For example, to understand the basics of bettering VSM, I look to the basics of agile — four cornerstone values lead us, and the twelve guiding principles steer us in developing solutions.

“Your job isn’t to build more software faster: it’s to maximize the outcome and impact you get from what you choose to build.”
— Jeff Patton

Going back to the birds, I notice where the bird feeder hangs. The type of tree it hangs from seems to matter significantly, not just the type of seed or the access to it. And then, thinking about the birdhouse, the hole is a specific size to allow only a specific type of bird to enter while keeping others out. Equally important is the size of the perch. The basics of a birdhouse must be specific to attract and protect the intended bird. Suppose the birdhouse’s maker does not master the complexity of these simple basics. In that case, the birdhouse could not label as made for an intended bird. This would not provide as much value to a customer looking for a birdhouse for a specific species.

Birds are already masters of their basics. They seem to know what size entrance they require to make that beautiful birdhouse their home — or not.

Watching these bird dynamics, I observed different preferences for specific types of trees, bushes, and other birds. For example, hanging a feeder in a crabapple tree in the winter is not good for bird basics. So hanging the feeder (or birdhouse) in this tree is a no-value situation. An occasional bold bird will try to sneak by the robins but often drop what they grabbed on the fly, attracting potentially unwanted critters or predators! I’m sure there is a parallel here to mapping our value streams and optimizing for outcomes.

This backyard experience correlates to trying to master practices within an organization to improve the flow of value through software development teams without looking at “bettering the basics.” For example, not adhering to the basic tenets of what makes a whole team and the purpose of their daily scrum, commonly loosely called a “stand up,” will quickly devolve its effectiveness and exacerbate the people and flow.

Several well-known lean, agile frameworks and models for organizing complexities at scale and improving an organization's strategic value delivery are available. But suppose we overlook mastering the basics at the individual and team levels. In that case, we may habituate malpractices that compound at scale.

The basics of agile are simple yet complex. It's a map with no single worn path but one North Star. The 4 values and 12 guiding principles provide essential guardrails for the path. Many practices can be employed along the path, but they require a commitment to getting better at the basics. Practices applied to achieve the outcomes desired in value stream management can be sharpened by evaluating the current state of these 12 principles.

How great are we at the basics? Continuous learning and relentless improvement lead to a better flow of value and, ultimately, business value.

“At the end of the day, your job is to minimize output and maximize outcome and impact.”
— Jeff Patton

Final thoughts

I’m looking for a new branch for my bird feeder to get it out of the robin-ruled crabapple tree where it serves no purpose. To improve (manage) the use of that bird feeder (value stream), I needed to go back to the basics to understand where I could improve the outcome of a barren feeder. Likewise, for Value Stream Management, to improve the flow of better value sooner, safer, and happier, let's look at our product team basics and see how the basic 12 guiding principles of agile — led by its 4 cornerstone values — may help illuminate where the flow can be improved in our Value Streams, and thereby optimize for outcomes. That is our goal in applying Value Stream Management.

“Winners don’t just learn the fundamentals, they master them. You have to monitor your fundamentals constantly because the only thing that changes will be your attention to them.”
— Michael Jordan

NTT DATA's Business Agility Enablement practice can help organizations learn how to become agile and responsive to market changes. Our team of experts can work with you to assess your current state, identify areas of improvement, and develop a roadmap for transformation.

May your bird feeders be busy, your bird houses not barren, and your bird watching not blocked. Backyard VSM!

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Jim Rice
Jim is a certified enterprise business agility strategist and professional agile coach who has consistently and successfully cultivated high-performing teams and organizations that deliver better value sooner, safer and happier for clients. He helps them avoid digital disruption and helps make the transition to becoming a future-ready organization that is focused on value creation.

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