Value stream mapping is a lean tool that employs a flow diagram documenting in high detail every step of a process. Many lean practitioners see value stream mapping as the fundamental tool to identify waste, reduce process cycle times, and implement process improvement. Some organizations treat the value stream map as the hallmark of their lean efforts.
In analyzing value stream maps, it has occurred to me that some may have been created primarily as heuristic tools to teach lean concepts. It seemed as if the process improvement teams had focused on the method as the end, rather than how to use the method as a means to achieve an end. The detail was overwhelming. In some cases, the time spent creating the maps actually became a waste of time in itself, resulting in a negative return on the process improvement effort.
Don’t get me wrong: Value stream mapping can be a crucial tool to document processes and eliminate waste. Every process improvement initiative should begin with a clear understanding of current performance and an idea of the waste minimization you can achieve.
However, don’t allow enthusiasm for lean to lead you automatically to value stream mapping. In some cases, using value stream mapping would be like using a top fuel dragster – the fastest and most expensive car in the quarter-mile race, the best-of-the-best in technology, drivers, and pit crews – to take you to the mailbox at the end of your driveway.
Prepare for the High Cost of Participation
While value stream mapping can be an effective process improvement tool, the cost to use it can be high. Like racing a top fuel dragster, value stream mapping requires the presence of highly skilled support team members who practice frequently. Because of the need for considerable detail, team members will spend hours, even days, to develop a comprehensive value stream map.
Unlike drag racing, where direct costs can be measured, value stream mapping involves the risk of opportunity costs that are difficult to quantify. Simpler, more productive tools that are easier to learn might be available to make describing the current process faster and more effective. Many organizations forget to consider these opportunity costs for using value stream mapping.
Add Horsepower Incrementally
When management begins to appreciate the power of value stream mapping, a natural tendency is to want to jump in and improve the most complex business processes. After all, the most complex processes can often provide the highest potential return for process improvement efforts.
On the other hand, anyone who has raced top fuel dragsters did not start with top fuel. Starting with gas-powered engines led next to alcohol engines and finally to top fuel.
I recommend a “stepping up the ladder” approach to value stream mapping. When first learning, control the complexity of the project by limiting the size of the analysis and the need for cross-functional involvement. Begin by evaluating and mapping a limited, simpler process within one area of the organization. Achieve some early wins. Publish your results. Build your confidence in using the tool for process improvement.
Advanced use of value stream mapping should occur when competence, experience, and time for mapping are available and when the tool applies to the situation. Examples of appropriate situations include:
Tune the Process of Ongoing Improvement
A dragster wins only when many components work well in unison. An improved, but overpowered engine can result in “tire shake.” A strengthened transmission can result in excessive tire spin when starting off the line. Improvements in only some parts of the drive train sometimes do not result in faster times.
The analogy in designing process improvement is critical and meaningful. Value stream mapping helps you find and eliminate waste. The approach often results in reduced business process cycle time.
However, reduced cycle time does not always deliver bottom-line economic improvements. In addition, improvement in one area of a value stream does not always result in process improvement of the whole. If you are going to invest in a powerful tool such as value stream mapping and you want a positive return on your investment, then new process measures are required.
Measure your process improvement projects based on actual performance. Dragster performance times are measured in thousandths of a second, and there is always a winner.
To determine process improvement priorities for your organization, answer the following questions:
Answer the questions with honest, quantifiable evaluations and you will be on your way to improving the productivity of your value stream mapping efforts.
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