Five Mistakes to Avoid in Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping is my favorite process improvement technique. The requires involvement up and down the organization in order to work and, when done right, you get buy-in which increases the chances that the improvement project is a success. As a facilitator, you have to engage leadership, middle management, and (most importantly) the frontline workers who not only operate and know the processes that run the business but will also be most affected by them.

Over the years, I've executed and led several value stream mapping projects and I've learned tons along the way. This post shares five lessons on things to avoid when leading  a value stream mapping project.

What is VSM?

There are entire books and some great online resources on what value stream mapping is, so I'm not going to even to try fully explaining VSM in this post. But what I'll do is link you to the best resources for the technique at the bottom of this blog and in the resources section of this site.

As a primer, your company or business has a chain of processes that take some input (whether its raw material, information, or another product) and generate some valuable output (your company's product or service). Ideally, the final product is valuable enough that someone is willing to pay for it. This is the value part in value stream mapping: Every business is trying to create value for someone's use, and hopefully that someone pay for it.

The stream part in value stream mapping has to do with flow. The main idea behind VSM is linking a chain of processes in your business and finding a way so that they flow together. Often times, in process improvement projects, we'll look at a single process with the idea of improving just that one process. But, as process improvers, we can run into the classic problem called sub-optimization where we'll optimize only part of a system at the expense of other parts of the system.  Using VSM, you are trying to make sure that all of the processes in your business/company/enterprise are working together and the greatest efficiency is achieved when these processes flow easily.

Finally, the mapping in VSM is the way the technique gets people to see the value stream. Not only do we show the value stream, but the team involved in the improvement effort helps build these maps, communicates these maps to others in the company, and the team uses these maps as a guide for getting the business from its current state (where you're at today) to it's future state (where you want to be tomorrow).

The five mistakes to avoid in VSM

If you're a first time facilitator of VSM, pay attention to these five mistakes (and avoid them!). Your first foray and subsequent projects will have higher chances of success if you know to watch out for these five mistakes.

Mistake #1: Failing to socialize the VSM and its benefits to the company

You're excited about this idea of VSM. You can clearly see how this project is going to help your company by saving time, saving money, and being more efficient to be able to make more money. Unfortunately, not everyone know what you're talking about and in fact, it just sounds like more work. Before you place your first sticky note on a value stream map, you need to talk with people ... and talk to lots of people!

Doing VSM right requires lots of "socialization" of the idea. This not only means talking with folks, but convincing them that it's worth their time to take on a VSM improvement project regardless of their resistance. And the resistance you'll face ranges from level of effort needed, to time needed, to questions on whether or not this will work, and at a fundamental level, whether or not improvements are needed in the first place!

Early socialization of the idea for a VSM project will lead you to different perspectives of the problem that you are trying to solve. In this preparation stage, you'll want to get everyone's perspective of the problem. Your view of the world is based on where you stand and you'll find that everyone's understanding of the problem will be different because of their different roles in the company.

Socialization is a part of charter development. Every good process improvement project has a well thought out and written charter that outlines goals, objectives, and constraints of the project. Once you get past the initial buy-in, your next step is to then talk (more talking!) with the key players in the company to come up with the project charter. Without this guiding document, the team you ultimately build for the VSM project will likely wander from solution to solution.

Finally, a key step during the actual three-day value stream mapping event is to hold daily outbriefs to all the stakeholders in your improvement project. And don't just stop at key stakeholders; open these daily outbriefs to everyone in the company. What you are trying to do company-wide is not just share what you did for the day, but you are seeking buy-in from the lowest-level employee to top management through their feedback and engagement in the process improvement.

Mistake #2: Failing to get management support for your efforts

Related to Mistake #1 is Mistake #2: Failing to get management support for the effort. If you've talked and talked, and then talked some more to socialize the idea of VSM ... great! But the next thing you need to ensure is that your company's leadership is with for the ride. The project at hand is one where you'll need help in breaking log jams across departments because the improvements you make aren't focused to one, single process. Rather, you are looking at changing multiple processes that cut across the entire company and at some point you'll need help from the top.

The natural perspective everyone takes with their work is their immediate responsibilities. Think about it: What gets people rewarded? What do they get held accountable for? It's for the things that are in their sphere of control, their immediate responsibilities, the tasks they did well or did not do well on. And so their natural inclination is to think about their work, their people, their department. This is "silo" mentality. Most workers in your company will only think about/worry about/act on issues directly related to their work.

Because VSM is a method that looks at a company's value stream, you need to make sure that the people who have oversee things company-wide are engaged. The right way to do this is to find the right champion and then go a step up and engage a C-level executive. Although you as the facilitator provide leadership for the project, your leadership is focused on executing the value stream mapping improvement project. You need other leadership that can engage the right managers in the right way to make sure you have the support that you need. There are two leaders that you'll need.

First, the value stream champion is a manager who has day-to-day responsibility for the performance of a particular value stream. This person is typically one level above the managers that will make-up your VSM team, is accountable for the performance of the value stream, and can authorize changes that the VSM team deems necessary for improving the company. Typically, the champion is part of the VSM team and is an active participant in all phases of value stream mapping.

The second leader needed in this process is the executive sponsor. This person is more senior to the champion and also accountable for the results. Vice president, C-level leader, or general manager are typical titles for this individual, depending on company size. His/her role in the process is to be an enthusiastic leader for the effort, is involved in the development of the projects charter, engages with the team during outbriefs, and monitors the progress of the changes implemented. Because of their senior level, this person is typically too busy to be on the mapping team, but their involvement will energize the team.

Here is what I've found with senior management. If you as a facilitator have a good plan, often your company senior leaders will engage as you ask them to. Socializing the idea and developing the charter are two ways that you can show your plan. If you don't get support from either type of leader, look to do a different improvement effort. Missing support from one or the other is still possible, just be prepared for the VSM effort to be more difficult resulting in more work for you as the facilitator.

Mistake #3: Allowing the team to be distracted with their day-to-day work

Mistake #3 can be summed up in one word: engagement. How engaged is the team that you've built going to be during the three-day VSM exercise? As you go throughout the company talking up the idea of VSM, you'll undoubtedly run into the "I'm too busy" syndrome. This is where the folks that you ask to be on the team (which commits three days of their time) put up their resistance to spending that large amount of time to the process. But the process requires three straight days because that amount of time allows for exploring root causes, discussing potential solutions, and allowing for the paradigm shift to ultimately happen.

You might be tempted to make compromises such as compressing the timelines for the three days, acquiescing and allowing a lower-level employee to attend, or maybe spreading out the three days over a number of weeks to minimize the impact of time away. All these compromises do is dilute the potential outcomes of the VSM exercise.

VSM requires three consecutive days of work so that the team can approach map building in three distinct parts: 

  • Day 1: Current State Map. The team builds a value stream map that shows today's processes, the "As-Is" map. The rule here is open discussion, no judging, and articulating how the value stream mapping is actually operating.
  • Day 2: Future State Map. The team builds a map for how the value stream should be operating, the "To-Be" map. The rule here is design and creativity. How should the value stream operate?
  • Day 3: Transformation Planning. No map building here. Rather, after days 1 and 2, the team now knows the performance gaps and, no doubt, have been thinking about solutions to the problems. This is where individual improvement projects are developed and committed to and a plan for the next 3 to 6 months is drafted.

So with each day, deep thinking needs to occur. Whether its learning about how the value stream is actually operating (Day 1), or designing and creating the future of the company (Day 2), or brainstorming and outlining the plans to fix processes (Day 3), the only way to achieve the thinking needed for each outcome is focus, commitment, and thinking. You'll never get there is your team members are half-listening, distracted as they are answering emails or texts, stepping out to take a phone call, or maybe bringing their own work to the VSM mapping days.

In my experience, solving this problem came in a number of different ways. First, I've always been upfront on the time commitment. Granted, my fourth time leading a VSM team was easier as I just went with: "Trust me, it's worth the time." But your first time around, you won't be able to use this line. Engagement with the executive team might be a different way. If senior leadership is excited about VSM, it's easy to get them to engage with the reluctant team members or simply state that the VSM project is a "priority" project. Finally, the best way to avoid distraction is to establish a dedicated "base camp." This is the location that is strictly for yours and the teams use for the three days. It can be offsite or onsite, but find a space for the team to call their own.

Mistake #4: Poor follow-up with the execution plan

Let's say that you've done excellent prep work and the three-day event was a smashing success. Success looks like wide agreement on the current state and future state maps, engagement by employees company-wide for the daily outbriefs, and excitement by the team and senior management about the execution plan moving forward. Moving forward, implementing the improvement plan, is the third and most difficult phase of the VSM effort.

In this phase, you and the team created a plan with half a dozen to a dozen improvement projects. There are four things that you need to be sure is outlined with each of the improvement plans.

  • Accountability. The most important of these is who is responsible for the project? I've learned that most people don't want added responsibility, but you need to make sure that there is a name assigned for the project (and that name is not yours!)
  • Measurable objective. With all improvement projects, you want to be able to say "We're done." You'll only be able to do this if the goal that you have for each improvement project is clear.
  • A target completion date. This is not the same as your objective. What you are doing is forcing completion of each project by setting a target. Without a completion date, it's likely that improvement projects will simply drag on (see Mistake #5, below).
  • Update meetings. You need to be sure to setup a system so that you get regular feedback on how well (or not so well) each of the projects are progressing. Without these updates, you'll be left in the dark and unable to articulate if the VSM project was worth the effort.

In my first two VSM projects, I ignored the need for follow-ups. Months later, I'd realize that I didn't know if the improvements had been implemented, and, if they had, whether or not there was a clear improvement in the value stream. It's always worth the follow-up on the execution plan because you'll be the person best to answer whether or not the VSM work was a success or not.

Mistake #5: Treating VSM as a one-and-done project

Finally, the last mistake I've made is treating the VSM tool as one-and-done projects. When I started out, I saw the benefit of taking a VSM view of my organizations processes and tackled a single project improvement project with the VSM tool. The specific effort was to improve the training cycle for firefighters and bomb technicians, and, although the team had moderate success with that specific project, I wasn't able to capitalize on the real power of VSM for the larger organization. What VSM does is allow for others to see processes across the company and relate them to their own day-to-day work.

In each of my projects, I've had at least one person from the mapping team tell me that they "think differently now." And why wouldn't they? For three days, we talked about processes, and process improvements, and stared at our VSM maps developing a deep understand of one area of the organization. Although they used different words, it's the same message: They can see how work gets done and that they "think in processes." What a huge compliment! As a facilitator, you'll successfully take people through a paradigm shift, and that's no easy task.

If you're successful in this one VSM project, that's great; but if you don't have plans to do more, your company is bypassing what we are all trying get after, a culture of continuous improvement. In my previous projects, I failed in two regards.

First, with the completion of one successful VSM effort, I never thought about gathering the team back together to discuss future efforts. What things went well? What things were left undone? Do we need to try the VSM again? Without plans for a future VSM, it relegates the method to just a novel idea and prevents any real sort of change taking place. How many times have you been part of an initiative only for it to die off? The one-and-done kind of thinking for VSM will lead it be just another initiative that eventually goes away.

The second way I failed was thinking too small. As a facilitator, my main focus was executing on that specific project. But as soon as that project was over, what then? I moved on with other tasks thinking that I was successful. Instead, what I should have done was think in terms of broader continuous improvement impacts across the company. Can VSM be applied to other areas? If not, what other tools or techniques would be appropriate? Is it worth it to re-attack the current value stream with another VSM effort? Are there folks that could be taught the technique to lead future projects? Not being able to see past the current project limited the VSM tools impact on the organization and didn't contribute towards creating a continuous improvement culture.

Resources for becoming an expert VSM facilitator

So there you have it. Five mistakes that I've made in my early efforts on facilitating VSM. If you made it this far in the blog post, thank you! I think if you're on the watch for these five mistakes, you'll have a greater chance of success in your own VSM projects for your company.

Before leaving, I want to share the resources that I've found to be most useful in executing a value stream mapping project. I hope that you're as successful as I've been in executing these VSM project!

  • Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation by Martin and Osterling (2013) Amazon link
  • Learn How Value Stream Mapping Applies to Any Industry or Process YouTube Video
  • Slideshow Template (Coming soon!)

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