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Value stream mapping is a Lean management technique that helps companies visualize processes in an effort to define and optimize the steps involved in getting a product, service, or value-adding project from start to finish. When performed effectively, value stream mapping shines a light on ways to either reduce waste within processes or to increase items that directly add value to customers.

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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.

Lean thinking revolutionized the manufacturing industry when it was pioneered by Toyota in the 1940s. It led to improved collaboration, communication, and flow across production lines. Finding ways to add value for customers is core to Lean methodology.

Though value stream mapping’s origins trace back to manufacturing, it’s widely used by businesses today across many industries. 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 – something that’s been proven effective in many fields, including information technology, engineering, financial, human resources, legal, marketing services, and more.

Value stream mapping centers around optimizing whole systems and processes. Conducting it effectively involves a holistic approach that starts with mapping out all the steps required to take a product or service from the concept or idea phase through the design and production process and ultimately to customer delivery.

Successful value streams offer continuous improvement across systems because they allow for optimization in two ways:

  1. Team members can identify and remove waste from processes.
  2. Team members can focus on building deliverables that contribute directly to customer value.

Benefits and Challenges of Value Stream Mapping

The use of value stream mapping continues to grow within organizations due to the numerous benefits it provides. One of the core benefits: It helps organizations shift thinking from projects to product delivery.

Ad-hoc projects generally have a defined start and end point; value stream mapping focuses teams on continuous improvement and efficiency.

Due to their holistic nature, value streams are worth far more than the sum of their parts. This often translates into small efficiency gains that scale across phases of processes, or even across multiple processes overall.

One additional benefit is that value stream mapping encourages or even requires cross-team collaboration. This often results in more effective, higher-quality team output and more well-rounded team members in terms of arming them with improved skills and capabilities, as well as an increase in the type of workflow experiences in which team members become directly involved.

There are also some challenges with value stream mapping. The first challenge is that it requires organizations to break through the siloed nature of teams. Value stream mapping forces organizations to reach across silos in manufacturing, communications, marketing, product engineering, software development, finance, and more.

An even bigger challenge for organizations is the potential complexity that comes with value stream mapping. Performing it properly can be a time-consuming process, often taking months, and sometimes years, to complete.

Mapping out complex processes that result in delivery to customers often requires input from multiple team members who understand current processes. And often, value stream mapping means getting input from other entities, such as partners, who have a hand in the delivery process. There are ways to mitigate the complexity challenges; some are presented in the Getting Started section below.

Value stream mapping definitions sometimes vary, depending on the industry. This article applies the term broadly to any type of knowledge work that has a process or repeatable steps. Now, we’ll take a look at how value stream mapping can be applied in two types of business environments.

Value Stream Mapping History in Lean Manufacturing

Toyota engineers used the just-in-time inventory practices they observed in 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.

Another manufacturing use case where value stream mapping would be helpful is for a manufacturer that ships millions of computers to customers around the world. It might make sense to create a value stream map that details the manufacturing process for a low-volume PC to get started.

Once the mapping is complete, teams can focus on reducing waste in the process while looking for ways to add value to the customer, like shortening the overall timeline from customer order to order ship. After the team completes one or two cycles, they can use those learnings to create value stream maps for other PC product lines: Perhaps a higher-volume product next, followed by the most profitable PC product. With each expansion to additional products, teams are building on work flows they’ve optimized over time.

Value Stream Mapping History 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.

Besides process efficiency gains, the other important aspect to value stream mapping is the goal of building self-sufficient teams. Ideally, these teams are capable of doing at least 80% of the work expected of them without additional resources.

For a software development team, this means you’ll need to incorporate expertise from several disciplines, including product managers, designers, front- and back-end developers, QA testers, and any other resources that help with work delivery. Developing these self-sufficient teams goes a long way to overcoming the siloed nature discussed previously.

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.

As mentioned previously, it makes sense to start with a single value stream where you’ve identified potential for finding and implementing new levels of efficiency that result in delivering higher quality products to customers at a faster rate. From there, you’ll need to design a Kanban board to visualize workflow, measure effectiveness, and identify opportunities for improvement. Initial steps are:

  • Map your process to reflect your current state as closely as possible
  • Map your process to reflect a future state – where the organization wants to go
  • Design your board to capture the right metrics for improvement
  • Develop a detailed action plan that attempts to address process gaps or inefficiencies
  • Address common glitches such as wait time and hidden work

Remember that value stream mapping is an iterative process that teams will strive to improve over time. Perfection is not the goal; incremental, repeatable improvement is the goal.

The key is to accurately visualize workflows in a way that encourages continuous improvement. Building the right foundation will help you improve both your products and the skills of the team members responsible for delivering them incrementally over time. And many studies have shown that these repeatable, incremental improvements in aggregate can have a profound impact on organizations in the form of shortening product cycles and reducing costs – all while improving quality as well.