To better understand what an Agile workflow is, let’s first see how it differs from the conventional way of managing work processes.
Traditionally, work is managed in a sequential, linear way that consists of several different phases. No stage begins unless the previous one has been completed. This is known as the “waterfall” approach to project management. The main issue here comes when there is a change of requirements for example, as teams have to go back and start the entire project all over again. This causes significant delays and leads to failed projects.
To deal with this problem, the
agile approach to project management creates a workflow where the focus is on continuously delivering small pieces of work to the end customers and getting their feedback as fast as possible. This way, your team can better adapt to emerging changes which inevitably befall most projects nowadays.
In addition, when you focus on constant collaboration with customers, you will be able to deliver value to them more frequently and satisfy their needs. After all, this is what we aim to do with our product or service, don’t we?
Talking about creating a value-based work process, we should mention that one of the pioneers in that area are Toyota. By implementing a model known as
”Value Stream Mapping”, which is one of the foundations of Lean management, the company managed to create a work process that took it from a small start-up to one of the most valuable automotive brands in the world.
So how can you use that same concept to create a more flexible and adaptive workflow for your business too? We are exploring that below.
Achieving an Agile Workflow with Value Stream Mapping
Let’s start with the definition of value stream mapping. Simply said, it is a Lean management process that allows you to visualize the development cycle of a product or service from beginning to end. It helps you put on display all stages of your work process as well as your team’s individual assignments.
With the end goal being to continuously provide value to the customers, through value stream mapping you can see both the value-adding activities in your work process as well as those that generate waste.
Here, it is important to note that there are activities that do not add direct value to the end customer but are not considered as wasteful ones. That is because they might be of significance for ensuring the successful delivery of a product or service (ex. Quality Assurance).
Mapping the value stream of your process and visualizing your tasks allows you to build a workflow where you can immediately spot issues and respond to them quicker.
In addition, it gives you a view of the big picture inside your company – what your team members are working on and where they might be experiencing difficulties. With that knowledge in mind, you can adapt to emerging problems and ensure a smoother flow of work which will ultimately make your workflow more agile.
Creating a Value Stream and Making your Workflow Efficient
A great way to map the value stream of your work process and create a more flexible workflow is through the use of an
agile management method such as Kanban.
By applying it, you can bring more efficiency to your workflow through:
Improved Team Collaboration
Let’s explore each one of them below.
One of the main things that Kanban does for your work process is to make it more transparent. This can be done with the help of the
Kanban board where you can apply the value stream mapping technique in practice.
There, you should start small and keep the mapping process simple without overcomplicating things unnecessarily. In the beginning, you can divide your workflow into the three basic stages: “To Do” (work is committed), “In Progress” (work is in motion) and “Done” (work is completed).
With time and depending on your own work processes, you should start adding the appropriate phases (and sub-phases) that reflect the flow of your tasks.
This allows you to track the work as it matures, see where it slows down and what might be blocking it from moving downstream. Having this in mind, you can take the necessary actions to make the entrance and departure of tasks in and out of your system as smooth as possible.
One of the core principles of Kanban states “Start with what you do now”. In other words, instead of pursuing revolutionary changes to your current work process, you should respect it and then gradually evolve it.
This brings more flexibility to your existing workflow because you are not disrupting it right off the bat. Instead, you are applying small improvements to it one at a time. This way whenever a problem with your work process appears, you will be able to successfully juggle between your existing solutions and those that gradually stem from Kanban.
Furthermore, Kanban makes your team more responsive to a changing environment. As the work is visualized, customer communication becomes more transparent too. Having that in place, you can react quickly to emerging changes, prioritize certain tasks over others and reorganize your flow in a way that does not accumulate significant project delays.
With the introduction of commitment points, you can also better respond to customer expectations. For example, on the Kanban board, you can have work stages such as “Ready to Start” and “Ready for Delivery” (“Ready To Deploy” in the image below) that reflect the readiness of your team to either start working on a single task or deliver it for customer examination.
Whenever a work item reaches the delivery phase, your team will be more likely to commit to a specific due date as opposed to doing that from the very beginning. This way, you will be able to lower the risk of delay, set realistic customer expectations and then be able to satisfy them.
Better Team Collaboration
An important workflow benefit that comes from Kanban is the improvement in team collaboration.
For example, as all tasks and their current status can be visualized on a Kanban board, team members will be able to see what each one of their colleagues is working on. This contributes to the reduction of chaos, it keeps everyone on the same page and eventually quickens the flow of tasks through your work system.
Furthermore, the Kanban board, for example, allows you to clearly define your work processes (ie. make them explicit) by visualizing them for everybody on a team.
All you have to do in practice is to input short descriptions of what is supposed to happen on each work phase and you will be good to go. Doing this will provide your team members with a shared knowledge of what the common goal is and how they can achieve it by working together.
The Kanban system, in general, allows more freedom and the possibility of team members to map and control their own workflow. Unlike the traditional push approach, where the “boss” assigns work, in Kanban, team members pull their own tasks.
This instills a sense of ownership and encourages discussions between them on how to get work done. Through those conversations, they will be more likely to collaboratively discover problems within the workflow, figure out a way how to deal with them and eventually improve the entire work process.
Embracing Continuous Improvement with the PDCA Model
Making your work processes better and better with time will allow you to achieve true agility, adapt to emerging changes quicker and thus deliver superior value to your customers.
A way to embrace continuous improvement is to integrate the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) Model within your workflow. This represents a cycle, involving four different steps:
Basically, in case there is an issue inside your workflow that might be leading to delays in projects, unsatisfied customers, etc., you should: identify the problem (Plan), test a potential solution (Do), measure the results (Check) and then implement that solution if it’s successful (Act).
To implement the PDCA cycle in reality, you can use the Kanban board again. At Kanbanize, we do that by tracking different types of experiments. Let’s take the development of this article for example.
To complete it, we have a dedicated workflow called “Content Production”. There, the development of this content piece goes through a number of different steps (columns) on the Kanban board before it reaches its final state. However, what if we found that lately, we have been systematically getting inefficient with the production of this article as well as others just like it?
In that case, we would first identify the problem and then start testing a potential solution in the form of an experiment. To do that, we have a dedicated column (work stage) on our Kanban board, called “Experiment In Progress”.
Our next steps would be to measure the results, determine if the experiment was successful and if so, implement it. This continuously improves our workflow, makes it more respondent to emerging issues and thereby, keeps it agile.
Besides your work processes, you should create an environment for continuous improvement for your team members too. To do that, make sure that you integrate feedback loops within every step of your workflow. This way you will be able to continuously refine the product or service that you are developing and eventually make it perfectly fit for your target customers.