Value Stream Mapping is the Place to Start

Last month I wrote about understanding your process.  I should have written this blog first.  But as they say, Live and Learn!

In the process improvement world, the basic goals are almost always the same: make the process better; reduce costs; and, make the customer happy.   For every improvement project there are other goals, but if you can’t achieve these three you will not succeed.  Occasionally, I admit, you may actually increase the cost of the process if the problems are so substantial that additional investment and control are required.

Today, we only want to discuss the first goal stated above; make the process better.  I am amazed at the number of organizations that subscribe to this philosophy and yet time after time fail in the long run.  Changes are made; teams talk about the great improvements they made and how much money they will save each year going forward.  Yet, when the entire process is reviewed weeks or months later, management discovers that the changes merely produced sub-optimized improvement results… in other words “we got better over here but made it worse over there.”

Why does this happen?  That’s the big question many management teams ask over and over again, and still they repeat the process of sub-optimization year after year.  The reason is simple: If you don’t understand the current state, how can you ever improve it?

Experienced Lean manufacturing practitioners understand this.  Years of studying the Toyota Production System (TPS) and making good rapid continuous change through kaizen have taught these experienced change agents this lesson.  Jim Womack and Daniel Jones talk directly to this point in the book Lean Thinking.  The fifth step for success in chapter 11 is Map Your Processes.

If you don’t understand what the current state, or condition as my good friend Skip Steward says, how can you ever make it better?  If you don’t understand how it acts, how can you ever say “this is what it should do”?  The tool to produce this understanding is Value Stream Mapping (VSM).  VSM is a very power mapping methodology developed by Toyota employees organically as a way to explain and create common understanding of a process that had been halted due to a problem.  John Shook and Mike Rother introduced the tool to the world in the book Learning to See.

VSM is used to create a process map that includes process flow, communication, where inventory and employees are in the process, cycle time data, defect rates, and any other data the mapper believes is important when the mapping occurs.  These maps can be explained and generally understood by anyone in an organization within about 15 minutes.  Quite a difference from the traditional flowcharts I learned to create in college.

And these maps, a current state to show how the process works today along with a future state map to show what your team thinks it should look like, can be used in any setting.  The tool is universal.  It can be used in both production and transactional value streams in any organization.  Mark Nash and Sheila Poling have provided one of the best, if not the gold standard, resource books on the market that explores both production and transactional processes.  Their book Mapping the Total Value Stream lays out how to map in both scenarios side by side.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is there is no excuse for not understanding the current state.  Go map it.  Discuss it.  Understand it.  Then start talking about how to make it better.


About narvelltmann

Currently working first job out of college as a cost analyst for M.E. Burdette Co.
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