Pioneered by Toyota in the 1940s, Lean thinking revolutionized the manufacturing industry, improving collaboration, communication, and flow on production lines. Value stream mapping is the Lean tool Toyota used to define and optimize the various steps involved in getting a product, service, or value-adding project from start to finish.

In today’s businesses, the application of value stream mapping, also referred to as “visualizing” or “mapping” a process, isn’t limited to the assembly line. With proper implementation, value stream mapping fosters a culture of continuous improvement that has been proven effective in information technology, engineering, financial, human resources, legal, and marketing services.

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Visualizing value streams and reducing dependencies allows flow to be optimized across teams.
Visualizing value streams and reducing dependencies allows flow to be optimized across teams.

Various value stream mapping definitions can be used, depending on the industry. This article applies the term broadly to any type of knowledge work that has a process or repeatable steps.

Value Stream Mapping History in Lean Manufacturing

Toyota engineers used the just-in-time inventory practices of grocery stores as their inspiration for developing value stream mapping. The engineers realized that by improving time between handoffs during the manufacturing process, they could improve productivity and reduce waste.

In manufacturing, these handoffs are simpler to visualize because they usually involve the handoff of a tangible deliverable through prescribed stations. This makes it easier to see where bottlenecks are forming and slowing down progress. If, for example, a problem arises when assembling a car, the line workers can physically see the parts stacking up in a certain part of their process. They can then halt production to solve the problem and get work flowing again. This kind of systems thinking has increased productivity, improved collaboration, and reduced waste in manufacturing for decades.

Value Stream Mapping in Knowledge

Lean value stream mapping is gaining momentum in knowledge work because it encourages systems thinking, resulting in better communication, more effective collaboration, and more team wins. Any team can enjoy the improved productivity and collaboration that mapping your process can provide.

Advanced mapping software and complex metrics can be incredibly valuable for teams to fully realize the benefits of value stream mapping. Though teams can get started easily by gathering around a whiteboard and defining the various steps involved in seeing their product, project, or service from start to finish, manual value stream mapping is not scalable and can create project-stopping confusion for remote team members.

Value stream mapping can be used to improve any process where there are repeatable steps, especially where there are multiple handoffs.

Much of the waste in knowledge work occurs in the handoffs (or wait time) between team members, not within the steps themselves. Inefficient handoffs in knowledge work may not look like bottlenecks on a car assembly line, but they produce the same effect: decreased productivity, overwhelmed workers, and lower work quality. Mapping your process can help you visualize where handoffs occur so you can also discover where wait time keeps work from moving through your system.

Benefits of value stream mapping in knowledge work

As in manufacturing, boosting productivity and reducing waste in knowledge work can increase the bottom line. However, the intangible benefits are equally valuable. Value stream mapping in knowledge work can help your team:

  • Practice systems thinking, creating a culture where team members prioritize their activities based on the needs and capacities of the team
  • Improve communication, replacing status updates with higher-level discussion that supports key business efforts
  • Create guidelines and policies to guide employee behavior even for tacit work, resulting in more effective communication
  • Enjoy higher job satisfaction due to more effective collaboration
  • Implement and maintain a culture of continuous improvement

In addition, Lean value stream mapping can also provide leadership with a clearer picture of how work is moving through the system. This visibility into your team’s process enables you to offer the insightful support they need for continuous value delivery.

Value Stream Mapping for Software Development

Software development is a perfect use case for demonstrating the value of value stream mapping. Like manufacturing, software development follows a repeatable process that has distinct handoffs between steps, and continuous delivery requires the collaborative effort of many specialized individuals.

Share a consolidated view of work priority and project status, whether in the same room or distributed across the globe, to manage delivery speed.
Share a consolidated view of work priority and project status, whether in the same room or distributed across the globe, to manage delivery speed.

Having a clear, shared understanding of process is invaluable for software development teams – undergoing a value stream mapping exercise in software development can help teams reduce handoff delays, improve communication, and increase the speed of delivery. It can also help them solidify their Lean process, ensuring a faster, more linear flow of value to the customer.

Software development is an incredibly fast-paced field, where business requirements are constantly shifting based on market demands. The faster teams can deliver testable increments of value, the faster they are able to receive feedback and improve their product. The benefit of value stream mapping for software development is that teams can continue to refine their process, enabling a sustainable, fast pace of value delivery.

Getting Started with Value Stream Mapping

Much of Lean thinking in knowledge work starts with applying value stream mapping to any work where there are repeatable processes. Although the technical value stream mapping definition varies by industry, its primary concepts have moved beyond manufacturing to be an effective tool for improving processes across all business functions.

Waste in knowledge work occurs in the handoffs between team members; by collectively identifying and visualizing these handoffs, teams have more control over how work flows through the value stream. This sort of systems thinking leads to a culture of continuous improvement that makes teams more effective, with less time wasted in status meetings and more time spent making things happen.

To get started with value steam mapping, you’ll need to design a Kanban board to visualize workflow, measure effectiveness, and identify opportunities for improvement. The initial steps are:

  • Map your process to reflect your reality as closely as possible
  • Design your board to capture the right metrics for improvement
  • Address common glitches such as wait time and hidden work

While this isn’t as easy as it sounds, you don’t have to get it 100% right at first. Building the right foundation will help you improve incrementally over time.