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What is value stream mapping? A lean technique for improving business processes

What is value stream mapping? A lean technique for improving business processes

VSM is a lean management technique that helps businesses eliminate process redundancies and waste by finding ways to improve current lean and agile business processes.

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Companies are always looking for ways to operate leanly by reducing waste and redundancies in business processes throughout the organisation.

Value stream mapping (VSM) found its start in manufacturing, but it’s proved equally helpful in the enterprise as a visual mapping technique for optimising and improving systems and processes. 

By implementing value stream mapping techniques, companies can eliminate waste in the development processes, identify and predict supply chain bottlenecks, and increase customer value by delivering improved services and products.

What is value stream mapping?

Value stream mapping is a lean management technique for analysing the flow of materials, requirements, and data associated with a given process, system, or product. VSM requires strong communication and collaboration between departments. 

For organisations that have siloed or isolated departments, encouraging more cross-collaboration between business units might be a worthwhile adjustment.

Implementing value stream mapping can be time consuming, especially if you choose a complex process, product, or system to analyse. The larger the project, the more people and business units that will be involved — that means you might need to allocate several months, or even years, to complete and implement your VSM strategy.

Value stream mapping benefits

VSM benefits organisations as an efficient technique for identifying and communicating the necessary features of complex systems. It enables businesses to visualise every step in a process — typically a manufacturing or development process — and identifies every necessary input and stakeholder for each step. 

With VSM, everyone can see how their work supports and adds value to the system, and it creates an efficient way for all stakeholders to track progress.

A value stream map also gives insight into any issues with resources, progress, and availability, facilitating continuous process improvement. It can help establish labor needs, track downtime, identify error rates, spot production delays, and catch inventory issues before they become a problem. 

VSM gives everyone involved a central point to check in, make improvements, discover any potential problems, and see how things are progressing towards originally established goals.

Value stream mapping process

Before you can start building a value stream map, you need to objectively evaluate your organisation’s business processes, products, and systems. Start by talking to leadership, department heads, and other key stakeholders who can give you more insight into what can be improved. 

You’ll need to get hands-on experience with the process, product, or system yourself and have other employees walk you through their part. A successful VSM involves everyone who has experience, knowledge, and expertise about the product or system being mapped, so that no details are overlooked, and everyone is working with the same information.

It’s important to collect as much data as possible — for example, any inefficiencies in the process, how many workers are involved, what resources are used, and any downtime. Any potentially relevant or noteworthy data is helpful in fleshing out your final VSM flow chart and achieving insights into what can be refined or improved.

You’ll then create two separate VSM flow charts — a current state value stream map and a future state value stream map. Your current state VSM will be used to establish how the process currently runs and functions in the business. 

This is where you will demonstrate issues, significant findings, and establish key requirements. The future state VSM, on the other hand, focuses on what your process will look like once your organisation has completed the necessary improvements.

As you work as a team on developing the maps, you may eliminate or consolidate steps to make the final flow chart easy to follow. Once established, you can put the value stream map into a framework such as Kanban, which is used for agile development. With Kanban boards, you can create a visual construct either physically or digitally to enable everyone to track the progress between each step.

Whenever the organisation updates a process or makes a process improvement, the value stream map will need to be updated to reflect the changes. Typically, this is something that can be done monthly, as needed. Once the changes are implemented, it’s important to see if they introduce any issues elsewhere in the process and to adjust accordingly.

Value stream mapping steps

Peter Hines and Nick Rich of the Lean Enterprise Research Centre in Cardiff, UK, established seven value stream mapping tools in 1997 to help businesses embark on value stream mapping. Hines and Rich note that the VSM toolkit shouldn’t stay confined to “any particular theoretical approach.” 

It’s up to your organisation to decide which agile or lean management framework to use, but the authors attest that following these seven steps will help you implement value stream mapping alongside any IT management framework that you choose. 

Relevant lean and agile IT management frameworks include Kaizen, Lean Six Sigma, Kanban, or business process re-engineering.

  1. Process activity mapping: Establish process flows, identify waste and redundancies, and analyze workflow and business processes.
  2. Supply chain response matrix: Identify any roadblocks in the process using a simple diagram.
  3. Production variety funnel: Look to other competitors and industries to see what solutions they’ve discovered for similar problems.
  4. Forrester effect mapping: Create line graphs that illustrate customer demand against production to visualise supply, demand, and possible delays.
  5. Quality filter mapping: Identify any defects or problems in the supply chain.
  6. Decision point analysis: Determine the push-and-pull demand in the supply chain, a process to determine production orders based on either inventory or customer demand.
  7. Physical structure mapping: A top-down overview of what the supply chain looks like at an industry-level.

Value stream mapping symbols

Since VSM is all about visualising a process, symbols help identify various parts of the process on the value stream map. These symbols help organise VSM flow charts, and they are often standardised within an industry or organisation.

There are widely used symbols that organisations adopt, but if there’s something unique or specific to an organisation, it’s not uncommon to design your own symbols. The only thing that matters is that everyone involved in the process understands what each symbol means. 

There are four main categories that these symbols fall under:

Process symbols: Process symbols are used to identify various types of processes within a value stream map, and to identify parts of processes that waste resources or that involve clients or customers. Commonly used process symbols include those that designate customers and suppliers, dedicated process flows, shared processes, and merged processes.

Material symbols: Material symbols identify the parts of a process that rely on inventory and the supply chain. Commonly used material symbols include ones to identify inventory, shipments, inventory availability, pulled stock, and external shipments.

Informational symbols: Informational symbols are used to show where and how information plays a role in a process. Symbols generally used for information include ones to identify production control, inventory issues, inventory control, areas that need to be spot checked, and information about the process that was shared verbally.

General symbols: All other symbols typically fall under general symbols if they don’t fall under the other three categories. General symbols include ones to identify operators, miscellaneous information, timelines, equipment, warehouses, orders, quality issues, and potential solutions or improvements.

Value stream mapping software

You don’t need advanced tools or software to create a VSM flow chart, as you can easily map one out on a whiteboard. But creating a value stream map can be a long process involving multiple departments and several key stakeholders, so you might want to invest in software designed to make the process easier.

VSM software can help you create flow charts, keep everyone informed, and offer collaboration and visualisation features that make it easy for everyone to stay on task. You can also find value stream mapping templates online that can help you get started with mapping out your business processes.

Here are some popular VSM software tools to help you get started:

  • Creately
  • Edraw
  • eVSM Software
  • LucidChart
  • Microsoft Visio
  • Smartdraw
  • Tableau
  • Visual Paradigm Online

Value stream mapping training and certification

If you want to learn more about VSM and how to create a value stream map or implement the process at your company, you can find plenty of courses and training programs on the topic. Most are offered online and you can even find some that are specific to relevant lean or agile management frameworks, such as Six Sigma.


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