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Wading In The Value Stream

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Karen Martin, author of Shingo prize-winning The Outstanding Organization, is out with a new book with coauthor Mike Osterling, on a key tool used by “lean” advocates: Value Stream Mapping. (That’s both the tool and the title of the book.)

This book clarifies and simplifies something that stymies many people, myself included. For that reason alone, Value Stream Mapping is well worth picking up. It’s a straightforward user’s guide to constructing current-state and designing future-state value stream maps that help you visualize and improve your efforts to flow value to your customer.

Now, I’ve never been a raving fan of value stream mapping as an activity, for a few reasons. First, I never really saw them used in the fast-paced, project-based, knowledge work domains while working with Toyota. Second, I find them to be missing something critical to making anything of value flow freely: people. (If you’ve been reading my last couple posts on systems, you’ll catch my drift.) And I’ve all too often seen value stream mapping efforts degrade into being all about the map. Which of course misses the point.

Finally, they sorta make my head hurt.

I admit to being weaker on the left side of my brain than my right. When I look at a value stream map, I’m reminded of my father’s engineering diagrams or wiring schematics. Invaluable to making things work right and diagnose/fix them when they don’t. But, like those visuals, value stream maps make my eyes swim…even the well-drafted, basic ones:


(source: Value Stream Mapping)

All of above reasons provide the very reasons why the authors thought the world needed another book on value stream mapping. I can’t be the only one struggling with it.

In fact, in their work with organizations, they’ve seen the top six ways value stream maps get misused and abused (nearly all of which I’ve observed as well), which they aim to rectify in the book:

1. Using the Mapping Process Solely as a Work Design Exercise. “Going through the effort of creating value stream maps without experiencing its accompanying organizational learning, culture shifts, and leadership development benefits is like buying a Ferrari and using it only for city driving where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour.”

2. Using the Map to Make Tactical Improvements. “Too many organizations miss the benefits of value stream mapping by trying to use them to define tactical-level improvements, the purview of process maps. One visual cue that this problem exists is when we see so-called value stream maps that extend the entire length of a wall, containing 30, 50, or even more process steps.”

3. Creating Value Stream Maps During a Kaizen Event. “Kaizen events should be heavily biased with the people who do the work being improved, and value stream mapping activities should be heavily biased with the people who oversee the work being improved.”

4. Creating Maps but Taking No Action. “All too often we see organizations with beautifully designed current state value stream maps but no future state value stream maps. Or beautifully designed future state maps, but no action plan for realizing the future state. Or a detailed plan, but no significant action being taken to achieve the future state. Again, the purpose of value stream mapping is to improve the value stream.”

5. Mapping with an Inappropriate Team, or No Team at All. “Related to the danger of using value stream maps at a process level, many organizations miss the richness that comes from having the appropriate parties on the mapping team. Since value stream mapping is a strategic improvement activity and the future state map often requires significant organizational change, the team must include those individuals who can authorize that level of change.”

6. Creating Maps with No Metrics. “A typical value stream map has three key components: information flow, work flow, and a time-line. Using time to drive improvement has proven one of the greatest contributions the Lean movement has brought to the operations design table. The timeline is, by extension, where value stream mapping shines its brightest light.”

As the authors put it, “Value stream mapping forces an organization’s hand to either make the difficult structural changes that are more in line with the cross-functional reality within which they exist, or continue to deny reality, stick with outdated structures, and continue to perform accordingly.”

And, as I’ve been contemplating systems of late, Value Stream Mapping has this relevant comment:

“Value stream mapping also presents a pragmatic way to realize systems thinking, one of the pillars in the work of both W. Edwards Deming and Peter Senge. When organizations see the interconnectedness of various departments and processes, they make better decisions, work together in more collaborative ways, and avoid the common and costly trap of suboptimization.”

The best news is that after reading Value Stream Mapping, I feel my headache dissipating.

(Available for $28 on Amazon.)