Value Stream Mapping Revisited

Mike Rother, an excellent guy and also the guy that brought us all value stream mapping through the book Learning to See, has just written a reflection on pitfalls of value stream mapping for SME’s Lean Directions newsletter. Here are a couple of highlights and the full article.

The value stream perspective represents a shift from vertical to horizontal thinking.

This was just a statement in his introduction but I think of profound importance. As I like to say, lean is not born from what you see, lean is born from how you think. Value stream thinking is a missing element of most value stream mapping. Think about a single operator on the assembly line, or in a hospital, or at McDonald’s. Value stream thinking simply represents the idea that my world does not begin and end with my task, but begins with the previous task(s), or supplier, and ends with the following, or customer. Expanding our view beyond our own work, whether our work is flipping the patty, machining a part, running a plant or running a company.

Some readers appear to think that value stream mapping is in itself a goal.

This is the first pitfall that Mike suggests. This is the most true of true statements. I see this constantly. Except I think it’s MOST readers, not just some. I was recently talking with someone who thought his company was pretty lean. He goes into other companies and they tell him they are lean. His test – “do you have a value stream map?” He told me “if they can’t show me their value stream map, then I know they aren’t lean?” That’s when I start looking for a way out of the conversation. Maps don’t make you lean, people make you lean (the value stream mapping version of guns don’t kill people, people kill people – with guns). I’ve seen too many people delegate their building of the map. But it’s in the building of the map where all the good discussion and insight comes from. Don’t delegate this. Build the map yourself, as a team. Maps don’t make you lean.

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Don’t confuse value stream mapping with traditional process-level flow charting.

At a major manufacturing company that is respected by many for their lean efforts, I saw their efforts at value stream mapping. They taught everyone in the plant, and then sent them on to build maps. The paint process owner had his map – Hang parts, paint, unload parts. Not a lot of insight there. People have been taught to use value stream mapping on everything for everything. Value stream mapping is a specific tool for a specific purpose. Mike’s book gave life to this tool, and I have to give him a lot of credit for not abusing the use of the tool the way many others have. If I’m working on the accounts payable process, or the receiving process, or the part design process, there are better tools to understand the process than value stream mapping.

Avoid overemphasis on tallying inventory to estimate the production lead time.

I won’t focus a great deal on this pitfall. This deserves a whole post on its own. The goal is not inventory reduction and isn’t even lead time reduction. These are just indicators. They are indicators of progress and of problems. Use them as such.

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Don’t go too far out into the future with the future state map.

There are two aspects of this – planning in a short window and an ideal state with a large window. I think people shouldn’t try to plan too far out. Why? Because look at how much learning SHOULD occur (if done correctly) with each improvement. Each improvement brings new insight, and that insight should be reflected in the plan. Mike recommends a maximum of 12 months; I recommend 3-6. The large planning cycle is truly looking at the ideal state. I don’t think enough people really stop to think about what is ideal. This isn’t really recommended much in the book, with a focus on the future state, which I believe minimizes the impact of the ideal state. When I focus on the future state without thinking about the ideal, I get too constrained by what is perceived as possible. By focusing on the ideal, we have a true direction, a compass (as in True North) that helps us both in the overall transformation but also the daily work.

If you’d like to read Learning to See, Mike’s book that he’s is referencing in this article, here is where you can find it. And I’d like to thank Mike for sharing these wonderful insights. I hope you take them very seriously from the guy who in this case, “wrote the book.”

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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