How do others define (Business) Value?

Nobody listens to me

Let’s have a look at how others define (Business) Value

Before starting to find stakeholders and discovering what they value, let’s have a look at what other people think of Value. Because real Customers don’t come to us, we can have a look at what customers might read.

Understanding Organisations

Understanding Organisations” by Charles Handy doesn’t contain any orginal ideas but does give an overview of a lot of economical and social theories about organisations and the people in them.

However, the index doesn’t have an entry for “Value” or “Business Value”. It doesn’t even have an entry for “Customer”! The chapters on “Designing the Organisation” or “The Future of Organisations” never once mention customers.

Wow. Just wow.

The Table of Contents isn’t very useful either: Part Three consists of “Chapter 1” to “Chapter 12”. No chapter headings or titles to help me find the information I want.


Competitive Advantage

Competititve Advantage” by Michael Porter is one of those classics that businesspeople just have to read. Summary: in a typical four-quadrant model, Porter shows that there are four generic competitive advantage strategies:

  • Cost Leadership: become the low-cost producer in your market. This allows you to have the lowest prices and/or the highest margins. If other companies in the same market try the same strategy, a price war ensues.
  • Differentiation: seek to be unique in your industry along some dimensions that are widely valued (aha!)¬† by buyers.
  • Cost Focus or Diffentiation Focus: the same as above, but focused on a narrow segment of the market.

Porter uses the concept of a “Value Chain”, where primary and support activities within the organisation together create value. Different Value Chains are connected in a “Value System” as the outputs of one organisation’s Value Chain create the inputs for another organisation’s Value Chain.

In competitive terms, value is the amount buyers are willing to pay for what the firm provides them. Value is measured by total revenue, a reflection of the price a firm’s product commands and the units it can sell.

The book touches on the importance of “Buyer Perception of Value”: it’s not the “objective” value delivered (whatever that is), but the buyer’s subjective assessment (based on incomplete knowledge) that’s important.

The price premium a firm commands will reflect both the value actually delivered and the extent to which the buyer perceives this value.

Therefore it’s important to know who the real buyer, the real decision maker, is and how they define value for themselves and their organisation. Because the Value Chains of seller and buyer are part of one system, an important part of delivering value is knowing how the seller Value Chain impacts the buyer’s strategy for their Value Chain. The book never uses the word Systems Thinking, but thinking about Value Chains organised in a Value System is a start.

I’m not too fond of the Value Chain concept with its fixed “Primary” and “Supporting” activities. It all starts to get a bit messy when we break the organisation into multiple Value Chains with common supporting activities and we get into Activity Based Costing territory. We do use value-delivering and supporting business processes in our analysis.

EVA and Value Based Management

A more recent book (2001) about “EVA and Value Based Management” by S. David Young and Stephen F. O’Byrne posits that there’s only one relevant type of value: Shareholder Value, not company value or customer value.

Shareholder Value is based on Economic Value Added (EVA = net operating profits – cost of capital). Market Value (the value shareholders care about) is then the invested capital + the capitalized value of current EVA (based on the estimate that the current EVA level will be maintained) + the capitalized value of expected EVA improvements (based on the estimate that the company will improve their EVA in the future). That’s a lot of estimates.

Simply put, as companies outperform or underperform EVA expectations, investors convert these surprises into value.

If Shareholder Value is the only reasonable measure, then Value Based Management is very simple: tie executive compensation to EVA. If the executives’ wealth is aligned with the company’s (shareholders’) wealth, the executives will implement strategies that increase this wealth. The actual strategies to follow are left as an exercise for the student. It turns out that things aren’t quite as simple as they sound, even when the risks that the authors acknowledge are taken into account.

… short term finance measures, including current EVA, are relatively less informative about managerial effort expended in areas that are most useful to long-term value creation.

Anyway, for our purposes this definition of value is unusable. The book acknowledges this measure can only be used at the top and then only as a lagging indicator. The solution is to use Value Drivers, a set of financial and non-financial measures which will lead to the desired results. These Drivers must include both current situation and future growth to avoid a focus on the short term. The important point is to take a Systems Thinking approach:

… the two most important success factors in implementing a balanced performance measurement system are whether top managers have clearly articulated the firm’s strategic vision and whether they have identified the key performance indicators for measuring the success of that strategy…. there must be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the measures that are chosen and the company’s strategy.

Danger: measure the right things, the right way. Some tips from the book:

  • Clearly articulate a strategic vision, consistent with the goal of creating value
  • Seek input not only from internal sources but also from customers and suppliers
  • Let measures evolve over time, as conditions and strategies change
  • Link key measures to all levels of management compensation
  • Cascade measures deep in the organisation
  • Cap the total measures reported to top management at 20 or fewer
  • Report key measures at least on a quarterly basis, preferably on a monthly basis and even more frequently if information technology allows [ed: ditch the information technology if it doesn’t allow this :-)]

The book is very much financial/accounting oriented. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the use of “Working Capital Requirement” (WCR), which includes in capital (and thus capital costs) lots of things that traditional accounting would consider as assets (inventory, unpaid invoices). The financial analysis shows how shortening total cycle time decreases WCR and dramatically improves profitability. As Taichi Ohno saidAll we are doing is looking at the timeline from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that timeline by removing the non-value-added wastes.” And you get improved quality and reliability as a bonus!

The Toyota Way

In contrast to the short-term stock market focus, “The Toyota Way” describes how to “base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy even at the expense of short-term financial goals“.

The Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America mission is:

  • As an American company, contribute to the economic growth of the community and the United States
  • As an independent company, contribute to the stability and well-being of team members
  • As a Toyota group company, contribute to the overall growth of Toyota by adding value to our customers

A balanced view, where the survival of Toyota is based on satisfying customers and stakeholders both inside and outside the company.

User Stories Applied

Closer to home, how does the Agile literature deal with Business Value? “User Stories Applied” by Mike Cohn has no index entry for Business Value and only one for Value. Discussing the “INVEST” criteria for User Stories, Mike refines the “Valuable to the Customer” criterion to “Valuable to Purchasers or Users”. Why the distinction? The Purchaser (the person who buys the software) may have additional requirements that aren’t expressed (or even visible) by the users of the software. In the same section, the book says that User Stories must be “Valuable for the Customer and the users”. The best way to ensure that this is true is to let the Customer write the stories.

I see a few problems with this:

  • Who is the Customer (who writes stories) and what is their relationship to the Purchaser? We define two roles: the Client (a bit like the Purchaser) who’s responsible for overall goals, resources and constraints and a Customer who’s responsible for the content that achieves the goals with the given resources and within the given constraints.
  • There are more people, roles, teams, organisations (in short: stakeholders) affected by a project/product than just the purchaser and the users. How do we ensure that we discover and deliver what they value? We systematically¬† discover all the stakeholders so that the Client and Customer can take their needs into account.
  • What is Value? We explicitly define value(s) for each of the stakeholders, based on their goals.
  • Does a purchaser buy software? Do we sell software? That’s an unfortunate point of view of many in the Agile community, strengthened by the “Working Software over comprehensive documentation” line in the Agile Manifesto. First of all, we deliver a product which may contain software, documentation, training and a lot of other stuff. The purchaser sees value in the whole, not the software bit. Secondly, purchasers and users don’t care about software (which might be a reason they don’t come to conferences where we talk about software or why they hate coming to iteration planning and demo meetings). They care about capabilities and results: what will they be able to do (better) when they get the product? When can they get it? What’s it going to cost? We talk about benefits for the organisation and its stakeholders, measurable results and complete products with our customers.

What have I learned today?

  • Value is relative to each person or organisation and their situation
  • Organisations and projects have lots of stakeholders
  • Therefore, we will have to consider many values
  • Those values must be balanced and have a systemic link with the organisation’s goals so that we get early indications that we’re (not) on the right track
  • Having an explicit, clear and simple Business Value model helps decision making to reach our goal
  • Most of our stakeholders don’t care about “working software”, they care about achieving their goals. Our goal is to give them the capabilities they need to achieve their goals
  • Therefore, to achieve our goal we need to understand our stakeholders, their organisations and their goals
  • Value has
    • financial and non-financial components
    • a short term and long term horizon
    • quantitative and qualitative aspects
  • We need whole-system thinking to pull this off.

What have you learned today?

Picture of empty auditorium courtesy of Mr Ush / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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