The Best Value Stream Mapping Facilitators Think About the Team

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In an earlier blog post, I wrote about five things to avoid when leading your own value stream mapping exercise. You can view that post here, if you're interested. In this post, I flip the script to share the five best practices for value stream mapping. This comes from my experience in leading the method half a dozen times with each experience being better than the last. Between this post and my last, you'll take away a few things to keep in mind when facilitating VSM.

Five VSM Best Practices: A Team Approach

VSM takes a team approach. Keep this in mind as you work through implementing the VSM event and as you read each of the best practices listed below. Understanding the needs of your team will help ensure the success of your lean improvement event.

Because these events are a large commitment of time from you and the core team involved, and in particular all of your planning, preparation and follow-through from you, I've provided a few links at the bottom of this post that have helped me in facilitating these lean events successfully.

These are five concepts that I wish I would have known going into my first VSM exercise. As the leader of my first improvement event, what I had done to date was read Martin and Osterling's book on VSM ... zero practical experience! Had my boss known, he probably wouldn't have let me spend the three days to do it. But I'm glad I was able to lead a VSM because having this expertise has served me well over the years.

So you've done your homework, maybe checked out some of the resources I've suggested, and you're ready to pull off your first event. Here are five best practices that will help you be a success in leading VSM teams.

#1. Socialize, socialize, socialize! (And then socialize some more).

When I provided my first out brief to the executive sponsor, I put together the chart below. It outlined the phases and steps of the approach and I highlighted key actions in each step. The task of socialization occurs in four of the five major steps. It socializing your idea doesn't occur in the last step because there is no need for you to gain acceptance of the VSM effort. By the time you get to the last step, you've already gained the trust that you need to lead your company through a change.

Socializing an idea is more than just a meeting. The first place to start with communicating the idea of a VSM event is to start with who you think will make up the core VSM team. These initial discussions are simply talks about the idea. You not only want to share the concept of VSM in these talks, but you'll also want to tease out different perspectives on how things are going, areas that might be considered pain points or bottlenecks, and (after you're comfortable that they have a good understanding of the project) what they hope to get out of the VSM event.

After these initial talks, there will be other opportunities to socialize the idea. You'll need to engage with the value stream champion and executive sponsor to get their support. You'll need to re-engage with the core team members as you develop the project charter. Daily out briefs during the three-day VSM event are opportunities for socializing change. And even when the improvements have been implemented and and complete, one extra step that you can take is to host a final presentation about what you and the team learned and did during the VSM process.

#2. Be a teacher to your team.

As you talk with people across the company, you'll realize that not everyone has the same vision as you do. As you go about building the core VSM team, it's not important that they have the skills in process improvement; that's your role. But the team does need to be able to see beyond their own departmental responsibilities.

Giving them this vision is something that can be taught. If you take on a teaching mindset, you'll find greater engagement across the team. There's three things to keep in mind:

  1. Teach every technique. As a VSM facilitator, you'll employ any number of lean and quality techniques as you work through the process. Whether it's working through the five why's, building a specific process block, using a pick chart, building a SIPOC chart, or using a parking lot, always take a few minutes to explain the exercise or technique. Assume  there is at least one person on the team that either doesn't know or could use a refresher.
  2. Stress the importance of learning during the Current State Map. On Day 1 of the VSM event, the team will build the current state map. It shows how things are operating today, as-is. The main thing I stress is that Day 1 is a day of "deep learning." Our collective jobs is to understand the entire value stream and, because no one person can know everything about the system, the entire team must be ready to learn about parts not in their responsibility. During that first day, I often repeat the phrase, "No judgements, no criticisms," to help the discussion along.
  3. Be ready to teach the next steps. Your team may want to jump ahead or want to know how a particular exercise fits into the VSM process. If you're able to give a preview of what's to come, the team gets a better sense of purpose and you'll get better engagement and ideas.

#3. Have a clear, well-written charter.

A charter is the roadmap for everyone on the project. You need this document to be clear and well-written because you, the core team, the value stream champion, and executive support will need to agree to everything on the charter. And, because a properly run VSM improvement event takes months from start to finish, you'll find yourself often referring to this document.

Marten and Osterling provide a great template (and I'll link it below). Here are the elements of a well-written charter:

  • Measurable goals and objectives. The charter needs to have these ... why?
  • People identified with unambiguous roles. Clearly, you're not pulling this off by yourself, but people also need to know that they are part of the team and their expectations. You need to have their permission to list them on the charter and discuss what their particular role is.
  • Benefits to the customer and the organization. This is the "so what?" of the exercise. I've found this to be actually quite difficult to come up with and articulate well.
  • Logistics details. What are these? (describe this in one sentence). These seem ancillary, but good planning in this area reduces your stress and, as a result, frees up your cognitive resources to focus on the VSM and leadership work at hand.

#4. Keep your value stream champ engaged.

If you were to have a partner in this whole endeavor, it would be the value stream champion. The value stream champ is the person that has authority and responsibility over the entire value stream. Typically, he or she is one level above the members on the core team and might hold a title of something like a vice president, general manager, or operations officer. The champ should have as much, if not more, interest as you in making the VSM effort succeed.

Lean initiatives often fail when leaders are not able to grasp and convey the need for systemic change.

If the interest isn't there, what you lose is a valuable resource in overcoming/breaking through/going around obstacles to success. With the right champion, he or she will have the authority and influence to overcome whatever roadblocks.

What kinds of roadblocks? At its heart, VSM is a change management method and so all the pitfalls with organizational change come with it: distrust or mistrust of the change, fear of losing jobs, disagreements across departments, an unclear vision or objective, and fear of failure among the team.

If you've done things right (see best practice #1), you've built up trust with the champ and have had discussions on the expectations you have of his/her role with both the team and the company's executive leadership. If the champ is engaged, he/she will have opportunities for energizing the VSM team, communicating with executive leadership, and your work in leading a VSM will be much easier.

So how can you ensure the VSM champ is engaged? Here's are a few things I did as a facilitator:

  • Consistent progress updates. Consistency is key. Establish a schedule for frequency and type: in-person, email, telephone call, updates at a staff meeting.  Most important is consistency.
  • Make great products for the champ to use. Make the maps user-friendly; provide copies of the charter; regularly update the transformation plan; offer to provide briefing slides on the parts of the process.
  • Offer him/her an opportunity to lead. The kick-off meeting, daily out briefs, and improvement plan meetings are excellent opportunities for leadership engagement.
  • Point out the roadblocks and ask for help. Removing roadblocks is the champ's primary role. Your role is to point these out and asking for help.

#5. Don't be afraid to change the improvement plan.

There's a big difference between needing to change a plan because new data or new conditions warrant it and deviating from a plan because an avoidable distraction has taken away the focus of an improvement team.

The above quote is from Martin and Osterling's book where they discuss having the wisdom to change the plan. You and the team may feel that the because significant time was spent developing the improvement plan and so it shouldn't change. But the reality of the business environment is that it is dynamic and things change. Therefore, one or two projects may no longer be relevant.

Additionally, the return on investment (or return on effort) for a project may no longer be sufficient. (Using a pick chart for your projects helps in determining this return.) In one of my projects, I couldn't get the assistance from a contracting officer to host a meeting. After learning that this officer had a history of flakiness, and after reviewing the project list to see that the impact for this project was "medium to low," I chose to abandon the project.

Changing the improvement plan needs to be a deliberate decision and only after the team has given an honest effort in executing the plan. But, once you do change the plan, you'll see benefits like freed up resources for other parts of the improvement effort, relief and reduced frustration from the team, and maybe other opportunities for improvement after having learned something from the first attempts at improvement.

When I chose to abandon the laggard project, I made sure to let everyone know about the decision, why we had to do it, and what the new plan would be. With the project gone, the team and I were able to devote more time on the remaining projects. A smart move since we all have limited time and attention and the return on the laggard project wasn't significant to begin with.

Keep your team top of mind

If you keep the folks that you've recruited to help you on the VSM project, the five best practices will come easy to you. You'll have the mindset of making the process as easy as possible for the people that have graciously (or maybe reluctantly) taken on the extra work to improve your company. Take care of the team and they'll take care of you!


Here are a few tools that I've used in the past for different VSM events. I hope you find success with the technique in improving your own organization!

White paper on VSM for leadership

Powerpoint Slides for leading your own VSM event

Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation

Template for a value stream map (Coming Soon!)

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