Value Stream Mapping: Making It Work

March 2, 2009
VSM activities should guide improvement efforts, not simply document processes.

Value stream mapping (VSM) is one of the most fundamental tools associated with lean improvement activities to reduce wastes and improve cycle times. VSM is not a highly complex tool nor is it difficult for people to understand. However, VSM provides insights into two very important questions necessary for gaining and sustaining any type of improvement:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to go?

Similar to the use of control charts in the early 1980s, there is a proliferation of value stream-mapping activities in companies "doing lean." Unfortunately, many of these mapping activities result in mere documentation of the stages and flow of a system or process that may or may not provide new insights into ways to improve the system. "Isn't that what mapping is supposed to do? Give us a map of our process?" No, in addition to insights into the above two questions, any VSM should also provide a framework for improvement work.

Work involves the exertion of effort in order to create or accomplish something. A fundamental failure mode in VSM activities is the sole focus on the map and the identification of current sources of waste. Since all processes exist across changing time and conditions, a description of today is outdated tomorrow. Hence, a VSM is only as good as the work that it generates.

Therefore, VSM activities should guide project work and improvement efforts. It should provide insights into a two additional questions:

  1. What work must be done to move toward the future state?
  2. Why hasn't the work already occurred?

Peerless Pump Co. is doing what many companies have failed to do with mapping activities. It is using VSM to align and focus work across the many functions and hierarchies involved in its engineered-to-order (ETO) business. The focus is not on the maps but on specific, well-defined projects that must be accomplished in order to achieve a sustainable future state of reduced and more predictable cycle times. Leroy Williams, general manager, shares, "Not only are we using value stream mapping to identify the wastes and complexities in our system, we are also using the mapping activities to drive answers and to identify and focus improvement projects across our functional boundaries."

Peerless Pumps is embracing the fundamental objectives of value stream mapping:

  • The creation of a common vision to guide improvement activities,
  • The establishment of specific projects and activities necessary to reduce the gap between the current state and desired future state of the process, and
  • The alignment of those improvement activities across the members of the value stream toward that common vision.

Cheryl Hild is a faculty member in the Department of Statistics, Operations, and Management Science at the University of Tennessee.

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