Why Is It Important to Visualize Your IT Workflows?

All processes have workflows, but very often we’re so entrenched in service delivery processes that we forget to go back and adjust or document the workflows. Take incident management, for example. This is a process most IT organizations have been performing since their inception, but some organizations may not have ever documented the intended workflow and many may not have kept documentation for the process up to date, resulting in process-shift. There are several benefits to providing a visual map for common workflows:

  • Mapping a workflow makes it easy to spot bottlenecks
  • Visualization assists in re-working, streamlining processes
  • Formal mapping and documentation of a workflow makes it easier to measure adherence and to train new personnel

The Importance of Mapping

The Toyota Corporation learned the value of mapping workflows when they began looking at ways to improve their assembly line processes. While there are many different concepts involved with their LEAN methodology, one of the main ones is that of Kaizen or continuous improvement. In simple terms, Kaizen involves mapping a process or flow and then looking for places where there’s an interruption in the flow of work. This may be a bottleneck, causing people downstream to run out of work or any other interruption that keeps work from flowing evenly. The concept of flow is that when work flows evenly, it is optimized, and the people involved in it are working at their most efficient. Kaizen seeks to improve the flow and therefore, the efficiency of any operation.

This can be applied to any service management or fulfillment process. Any part of the process that causes an interruption to flow, whether it be a delay while awaiting approval or an excessive backlog in a queue that causes people to spend time looking for the next ticket to work, the interruption of flow effects efficiency. The first step to finding breaks in the flow is to visualize the process, by mapping it.


Value Stream Mapping as a Technique for Visualizing Workflows

Mapping a process is different from documenting it as a series of steps: by providing a visual representation, mapping enables people to see things they don’t see in a list of activities. Value Stream Mapping looks at the processes or activities an organization performs to drive value. From the perspective of an IT organization, this can be delivery of a process that provides value, such as resolving an incident, or delivery of a service directly to an individual, like onboarding a new hire. Value stream mapping takes the activities and documents them visually, including the amount of time each activity involves and how long the step sits in a backlog. 

For example, if it takes 15 minutes to create a network account for a new hire, but it sits in a queue for 4 hours, the total time taken would be 4 hours and 15 minutes. If there was a way to shorten the backlog, total time to provision the account could be reduced.

Essentially, value stream mapping provides an instant look at a process and its improvement opportunities.


Visualizing Account Creation

The diagram below is a simplified value stream map for account creation. This clearly shows the issue described previously as the wait times become extremely visible when visually displayed. A list of activities might not be as obvious as this value stream map.

This can then be looked at from the Kaizen perspective, analyzing both the flow of work and opportunities for improvement. Starting at the beginning, the first question asked could be why someone needs to take time to submit a request for network access for a new hire. Given that this is a core need and new hires are on-boarded through HR, a feed or integration could be created to open these requests automatically when final approval to hire is completed (background checks and eligibility for work).

Analyzing the flow, the technical work is set up so the technician pulls requests in a first-in-first-out (FIFO) basis, pulling work toward themselves as each ticket is finished. The only backlog is the in the queue, work waiting to be done, but this is an accepted practice in LEAN, so the process itself works from the perspective of flow.

Thus, the opportunities to improve the process is are automate the request process and/or reduce the backlog. 


Visualizing Major Incident Management

In a similar fashion, it becomes easy to see the flaws in the major incident management process mapped below. There are two periods of waiting:

  • Declaration of the major incident as a result of the time it took to identify a caller’s issue as systemic in nature
  • Time to approve and invoke the process once the issue is identified as systemic

When Service Desk personnel are working only from calls, it’s not until enough incidents are logged to recognize a pattern, that the major incident is proposed. By this time, 30 minutes have passed. It then takes 25 minutes for the incident to be escalated and approved as a major incident. Once approved, it takes 10 more minutes to convene the major incident resolution team and the incident has now been active for 65 minutes. For a vital business service, this is an eternity!

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The Business Value

The business value in visualizing process is seen in the ease with which process improvements are able to be identified combined with the end result. In the account creation example, there are two improvement opportunities:

  • Automate the creation of new hire network account requests by opening them from an HR integration, each time someone is on-boarded
  • Automate the process of fulfilling accounts 

Either or both provide a transformed process. When the request is created automatically from the HR system, it can be set up in advance of the hire date and the 4-hour backlog that does not impact flow is acceptable as no one is actually waiting for the account to be created. Automating both processes takes staff out of the equation entirely, which could lead to long term savings and efficiencies. The value stream map certainly helps in the creation of the business case for an initiative to do so.

The incident management process also has opportunities for improvement that shorten the time it takes to restore service: 

  • Improving immediate identification of a system issue that is the cause of the problem:
    • Ability to view events for all configuration items associated with the service that has failed
    • Ability to view other incidents logged for the service immediately on logging an incident
    • Use of predictive analytics capabilities in the incident management tool to alert the service desk when multiple incidents are being logged by different analysts for the same service
  • Evaluating whether approval is needed:
    • This is a maturity issue: when systems are able to identify a potential major issue through the use of predictive analytics and a mature configuration management database (CMDB) with service mapped, there’s no need for approval and this bottleneck can be eliminated
    • If the organization is unable to use systems to support declaring a major incident, they should at least look at the number of “false alarms” vs. the cost of delay

Using tools and processes to shorten the 65-minute window of identifying and addressing a major incident affecting a business-critical service ultimately saves money, prevents loss of external customers and prevents the lack of confidence in IT as a service provider.

There’s another business benefit to visualizing processes: once visualized, the process can be easily implemented in service management tools, most of which include workflow engines. This makes many fulfillment processes easier to automate, which leads to further efficiencies. 


Cover Image by Kalaimaran