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The first visible effect of converting from departments and batches to product teams and flow is that the time required to go from concept to launch, sale to delivery, and raw material to the customer falls dramatically.

– James P. Womack

Getting Tactical with Organizational Agility: Techniques for Visualizing and Improving Flow

By Charlene M Cuenca, SAFe Fellow and Maarit Laanti, SAFe Fellow


Note: This article is part of the Community Contributions series, which provides additional points of view and guidance based on the experiences and opinions of the extended SAFe community of experts.


Introduction

Many organizations start small in their SAFe adoption by applying the Essential SAFe configuration to form and launch an Agile Release Train (ART). This approach can generate quick wins and facilitate rapid learning while demonstrating incremental benefits. Based on these successes, the enterprise often launches more ARTs, and the cycle of adaptation and improvement continues.

These initial ART launches frequently begin within IT and Product-led software development environments. But, as Dean Leffingwell, the creator of SAFe, points out, “Achieving a state of Business Agility means that the entire organization—not just development—is engaged in continually and proactively delivering innovative business solutions faster than the competition.” This means that development-only teams and trains are not enough. Organizations must leverage other competencies to achieve true Business Agility. Value definition and delivery do not start and end within software development.

Details

Typically, an organization seeking to get started with organizing around value performs a Value Stream and ART Identification Workshop (VSAIW) within a specific part of the organization (bottom-up) or as a way to understand the complete set of Value Streams across an enterprise (top-down) and then uses this information to identify a starting point for their journey toward Business Agility. The workshop provides a great starting point, and organizations are encouraged to revisit their value streams regularly to analyze whether current structures are still fit for purpose.

The workshop includes the following steps:

  1. Identify the Operational Value Streams
  2. Identify the Solutions the operational value streams use or provide to customers
  3. Identify the people who develop and support the solutions
  4. Identify the Development Value Streams that build the solutions
  5. Add the people needed to make the whole business solution
  6. Realize development value streams into ARTs

Ultimately, this process derives the Development Value Streams (DVS) and resulting ARTs that deliver the value to the OVSs.

Note: This process should not be confused with Value Stream Mapping, a lower-level activity meant to measure and optimize a specific DVS.

Initial ART designs typically include product and engineering roles, as other parts of the organization, such as marketing, finance, or legal, may not be ready to adopt Agile fully. Rather than being members of the teams on the ART, these different areas of the organization are often positioned as a shared service or external dependency as an interim measure. However, to achieve true Business Agility, they must be brought into the fold, especially when those functions are identified as key constraints for value delivery by residing outside the ART. There are also benefits that the function can achieve through leveraging Lean-Agile ways of working to aid in their business operations.

This article describes a thinking tool that is useful when organizing around value. This tool has been used successfully in the past for the following two purposes:

  1. Preparing for an upcoming Value Stream and ART Identification Workshop
  2. Analyzing an existing organizational function to integrate members into existing ARTs or better organize around value within their function

Both of these are further discussed below.

This article concludes by showing how to expand this technique so the organization can better visualize the interconnectedness of value delivery across the entire enterprise. Looking at the structures this way can provide data to take a more holistic approach to organizing around value and improving flow instead of organizing around hierarchical structures.

Introducing the CITSO thinking tool

CITSO [1] is a visualization tool that provides a technique for better understanding value streams and their interconnectedness. It identifies Customers, Inputs, Teams/People, Systems/Solutions, and Outputs to help understand the flow of value, from customer request to value delivered (see Figure 1).

5 rows of interconnected boxes. Each row has different color boxes stacked on top of each other. CITSO thinking tool. achieve flow
Figure 1. CITSO thinking tool

The tool has the following elements:

  1. Customer: the customer represents the user(s) of the solution
  2. Input: customers provide inputs like enhancements, new features, or other change requests
  3. Teams/People: Agile teams represent the people that receive the customer request(s)
  4. System/Solutions: includes the products, systems, and services the teams develop
  5. Output: represents the value created by the Systems/Solutions for the customer(s)

CITSO helps expose the overall flow of value and shows that the outputs of one team may become the inputs of another team. It reveals how to enable flow across the people, systems, and so on required to deliver a solution for a customer. Sometimes, the initial diagram is simple. Other times, it may be relatively complex and warrant deeper analysis to identify choices in team designs that optimize flow. Figure 2 shows an example of a simple vs complex CITSO. A complex CITSO often requires further decomposition by decomposing inputs, teams, and solutions. Look at the sub-areas within the various teams in the original diagram and run separate CITSO activities for each. Decomposing complex diagrams also allows more insight into dependencies and makes the current state more understandable.

Simple vs Complex CITSO. Simple diagram has only a few interconnections and the complex diagram has many interconnections. achieve flow
Figure 2. Simple vs complex CITSO

Ultimately, what matters most are the collective conversations and understanding generated by the CITSO activity and visual outcomes. Understanding the customers, inputs, teams/people, systems/solutions, and outputs reveals commonalities and patterns. This will lead to a better value stream and team design when conducted the first time or when revisiting the organizational structure.

CITSO also visualizes dependencies on multiple levels: architecture, team structure, and skills and competencies. This information is essential to understanding who should be on the same train. The preferable way to set the ARTs is to have most of the dependencies within ART, minimize the external dependencies when possible, and eliminate some dependencies over time.

Describing the relationships and dependencies between these elements helps everyone understand the flow of value and commit to improving it. The following few sections describe some practical applications of CITSO.

Scenario 1: Using CITSO to prepare for the Value Stream and ART Identification Workshop

The Value Stream and ART Identification (VSAID) workshop requires a general understanding of the current structure, including the systems/solutions required to support the operational value stream (OVS) and the people needed to build them. The ecosystem is often complex due to technical debt or merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. In these situations, it’s essential to understand how people and solutions are currently grouped and connected before executing the workshop or doing additional analysis as existing value streams are revisited.

Once CITSO is run for each group or team within a specific part of the organization, the information can be used as input for a VSAID workshop. By leveraging that as a starting point, the CITSO serves as a springboard for healthy conversations to look at commonalities, patterns, and current-state dependencies that help shape future state options for value stream identification activities. See an example in Figure 3.

diagram with 5 columns of vertically stacked boxes of differing colors. Each categorized as Customer, Input, team/people, system/solution and output. achieve flow
Figure 3. Leverage CITSO to understand the current state further before running a VSAID workshop.

Figure 4 shows another useful visualization that summarizes the outcomes of a VSAID workshop and uses elements from the CITSO input above. It shows a summary of the OVS steps, the customer areas, the tools, and the FTEs involved by location. For example, the CRM system is heavily used in OVS Step 1 across all customer areas, with 5.5 FTEs across the US, EU, and UK supporting it. This detail helps when weighing options for team and ART designs.

spreadsheet graphic with numbers and x's showing the System in the ovs and the skillsets in the dvs. achieve flow
Figure 4 . Summarize the initial analysis of the current state, including OVS, systems/solutions, and people/skills.

Understanding current and future state architecture is also essential for this technique, especially in a more technical domain. There may be strategies to rationalize the ecosystem, improve modularity, define better interfaces, and leverage modern technology. These factors should be acknowledged and considered to aid in shaping future team and ART designs.

Scenario 2: Using CITSO to analyze an existing functional organization

The CITSO tool can also be used to explore design options for a specific functional organization, such as marketing, HR, operations, etc. Agile transformation efforts may have originated elsewhere in the enterprise, and some groups needed more time to prepare for the change. As time goes on, more and more areas of the enterprise will join, especially as the original transformation efforts take root and gain traction. Helping these other areas of the organization think through their options enhances the enterprise’s ability to achieve organizational agility.

These functional groups may have been identified as an external but critical dependency on an existing value stream’s ability to deliver end-to-end value. They may also be interested in leveraging Lean-Agile practices but need a clear path to get started. The CITSO activities will become an aid and often a catalyst for revisiting existing value streams and ART designs based on the new information the exercise generates.

A CITSO analysis may lead to a few options (as shown in Figure 5):

  • One or more people or teams serve an existing value stream and should be embedded directly in ARTs and teams to enable flow
  • The function may become an ART itself to better organize around the value that it delivers
  • A combination of these two options, where some people join existing ARTs, and others form an additional ART

The steps taken in this approach are:

  1. Analyze the current state team structure, which services they provide, and for which customers
  2. Understand the skillsets needed to provide services for that function
  3. Note the dependencies between teams (inputs, outputs, and customers)
  4. Determine which functional organizational skills are needed by existing value streams (revisit value streams)
  5. Organize as a value stream with cross-functional ART(s) to deliver value towards the functional organization’s strategic goals (move from functionally siloed teams to cross-functional teams)
multiple citso diagrams mixed with ovs and dvs. achieve flow
Figure 5. CITSO in a functional organization

A holistic approach: Visualize the interconnectedness with the rest of the enterprise

CITSO can also help understand the interconnectedness with the rest of the enterprise at a macro level as this technique is applied across the organization over time. Figure 6 shows an application of CITSO expanded to the wider enterprise.

The steps taken in this approach are:

  1. Leverage CITSO for analysis of a functional organization (the functions shown in Figure 6 are just some examples)
  2. Understand value streams and Agile team design options
  3. When applicable, align and embed Agile teams directly within existing value streams
  4. Some Agile teams may remain internal to the function itself as part of their standalone ART
  5. As we engage more and more functions, we start to really achieve organizational agility
Multiple citso diagrams put in a horizontal row. Leading to the value stream and art indentification workshop, leading to multiple value streams that feed into organizational agility. achieve flow
Figure 6. CITSO enabling organizational agility

Summary

Business agility requires breaking down silos and working together to achieve flow. CITSO is a field-tested technique that helps realize many SAFe Principles: Apply systems thinking, Make value flow without interruptions, and Organize around value. First, get started with lean-thinking people and Agile teams – have the organization understand the Lean-Agile Mindset from the outset. Then, leverage CITSO and value stream conversations to identify potential ART and team designs that ensure better flow. Business agility will become a reality after more functions are engaged and are needed for end-to-end value.

This field-tested tool has real-world applicability to assist organizations with enhancing transparency of their functions’ value, the customers they serve, and the interconnectedness within and outside their functional organization. The resulting data generates information that aids in reshaping team structures so that they better enable flow within the function and across the wider enterprise as it continuously seeks to improve value stream and ART designs across functional organizations.

Finally, this technique is only as valuable as those who participate. Successful change depends on our people’s collaboration and transparency. CITSO is great at exposing information that has previously been siloed and fragmented. Engagement must include people across functions collaborating in this activity so that they self-identify what needs to change and why and agree upon what enables the most flow of value. Only then can the best outcomes occur.


References

[1] CITSO – A Novel Approach for Understanding Value Streams and Agile Release Trains, Maarit Laanti (Conference paper, XP2023 Amsterdam)