What exactly is value?

Posted on May 12, 2014

In the LEAN and DevOps worlds we’re obsessed with the idea of providing value. But what is value really? Some times we use a word so much that it is drained of any practical meaning and becomes more of an abstract idea. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that the word “value” ceases to really contain any value.

Webster defines “value” as:

  • “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged”
  • “the monetary worth of something”
  • “relative worth, utility, or importance”

These are too abstract for day to day decision making, especially in our topsy-turvy non-sense world of Silicon Valley, where we think everything has value, not matter how ridiculous it is.  I think the term generally means to people “something of importance” or “something special”.  But what does that mean?  Everything can be said to be important to someone, which is why I think we have a hard time prioritizing tasks and projects.  Maybe I don’t care about a task, but someone else does, and so even though its devoid of any personal passion or meaning (which is necessary for creativity), its valuable, so lets do it anyway.

If we don’t know why we’re producing something and we don’t have a personal investment into the task, the result is the production of scrap.  You complete the task, you commit the code, and no one really gives a crap.

So we need to redefine “value” in such a way as to create some emotional attachment within us.  I therefore propose that “value” really ought to mean:

  • Something that I need
  • Something that I want or makes me happy

Tie this back to the traditional definition, “value” is something you would be willing to pay for.  See, that’s the problem, we abstract the value away from the producer and put it on the consumer without really putting ourselves in the consumers shoes, making their problems our own.

So then, what we need to do when identifying value for someone else is to make that need or want personal to us.  Make your customers problem, your problem, and then solve it for yourself and your customer.

Managers can do this by direction, have your employees not just investigate a customer problem but re-create it… when they run into problems, they now have an opportunity to produce value.

Individually, look at your tasks and think for a minute “Who am I preforming this task for?  Myself?  Someone else?” and then once you know who the consumer of your effort is, ask the follow up question “What is it that they want or need?  What will make my customer happy?”  And I don’t mean happy in the “they shut up and leave me alone” sense…. I mean happy in the sense of joy.  Delighting your customer, making them smile, giving them an occasion to say “oh!  that’s so much better!”

Value need not be an abstract concept, but it requires some amount of diligence to peruse it.  It is very easy for each of us to devolve into machines who simply process task in, product out.  Don’t waste your life producing product that just goes into the scrap pile or stagnates because your not really sure what to do about it.