By Mike Loughrin, CEO of Transformance Advisors

Powerful Tool

Value Stream Mapping is one of the most powerful tools from the lean toolbox.

The “maps” you might have seen are created during “mapping” sessions.

However, it is the team oriented approach which makes value stream mapping powerful and effective; it’s not just the maps.

This article will provide an overview of what value stream mapping will look and feel like as part of a lean improvement project.

Relax and prepare to enjoy, you are not about to be pounded with dozens of special symbols, detailed step-by-step instructions, or obscure Japanese words.

value stream mapping

Achieving Clarity

Value Stream Mapping

Fact: You can visit the Louvre in Paris to view and appreciate the Mona Lisa; you will not leave with the knowledge and skills required to paint a masterpiece.

A common error, often caused by bad advice, is to look at a few value stream maps and conclude this is an easy activity which people should instinctively know how to do.

In my search for understanding, I have been amazed at the number of books, articles, slide shows, videos, etc. which show a few examples and tell a few stories. This is closed out with a false claim that the reader or viewer is now educated and ready to fly the plane.

I was generally left with a sense of frustration. I know what a map looks like. I know mapping is a powerful tool. But what does it take to do it?


Let’s start with a few definitions:

  • Value Stream: all activities (value add, business value add, and non-value add) required to meet a customer or stakeholder request.
  • Value Stream Map: a visual representation of activities and flows of information, materials, and services required to accomplish specific objectives.
  • Value Stream Mapping: a team based systematic approach to create value stream maps which identify waste in the current state or paint the vision of a future state with less waste.

In terms of value stream mapping, the key aspects we need to explore further include:

  • Team Based
  • Systematic Approach
  • Current State
  • Future State
value stream map definition

Team Based

value stream mapping team members

Fact: Value stream mapping is not a solo sport; create a map by yourself and you will gain zero buy-in and have zero chance of delivering lasting improvement.

Pulling together the right team is critical.

You want people who do the work. Plus, you want representatives from suppliers and customers of the work.

The “work” can be anything – product development, sales, marketing, procurement, order entry, accounts payable, etc.

The “work” can be a huge organization wide value stream or some smaller partial stream.

A challenge can be limiting the size of the team to be most effective. Keeping at 6 to 8 people is generally best.

  • Too many people can decrease effectiveness and lead to the loss of participation.
  • Too few people can mean critical knowledge is not available.

Now, if the scope of the mapping exercise is very large and includes many functional areas, then you will have a larger team and need to manage the dynamics.

Generally, you do not want the “boss” to be active during the actual mapping efforts. The boss must be actively engaged, but their role is more about leadership and supporting the needs of the mapping team.

One more point: the mapping team is often comprised of representatives from each functional area and these people will need to become champions for the coming changes. Each functional area needs to place their best talent and future leaders on the mapping team.

Systematic Approach

Fact: If you don’t know where you are going, then any path will get you there.

In a similar manner, if you know you want a value stream map, then take the proven path. Don’t waste your time wandering in the dark.

I promised you that I would not get into a ton of step-by-step instructions. There’s time for that down the road.

Experience demonstrates the best time to learn the specific steps is about 5 minutes before you will use them during your own mapping exercise.

The key aspects for the systematic approach include:

  • Use simple steps – don’t have some huge nebulous step such as “draw the map” which leaves everyone unsure about exactly what to do.
  • Ensure everyone is using the same steps – it’s an incredible waste when two lean experts on a mapping team start to argue about what to do next.

My systematic approach has evolved over the years. It’s taken some time to reach a point where the steps are simple and everyone can use them to create a great map.

There are slight differences between what to do for a current state map and what to do for a future state map. I don’t recall seeing this in any book or article. It is quite obvious when you force yourself to simplify the steps and be crystal clear on what to do and when to do it.

value stream mapping steps

View a slide show on a systematic approach to current state mapping

View a slide show on a systematic approach to future state mapping

Current State

Fact: The current state map needs to identify the waste. This often means finding crazy stuff no one realizes is happening.

It sounds simple, but finding the right level of detail can be challenging.

Example 1:

  • If you are mapping the entire product development value stream, then market research could be just one box on your map.
  • If you are mapping the market research partial value stream, then your map may have 6 to 10 boxes for the detailed steps.

Example 2:

  • If you are mapping the entire sales value stream, then create proposal could be just one box on your map.
  • If you are mapping the create proposal partial value stream, then your map may have 6 to 10 boxes for the detailed steps.

It’s very rare to create some huge map which wraps around the entire conference room running out the door and down the hallway. Such a large map reflects a project with scope and expectations which were too big or poorly articulated.

current state value stream map

Future State

future state value stream map

Fact: The future state map needs to paint a vision with less waste. Don’t go for an old fashioned 5% improvement, but don’t jump to some impossible perfection.

The key challenges include knowing how much change is possible and making sure the team investigates best practices and emerging trends which should be considered.

Common Error 1 is to reach for perfection in the future state. This may set up an impossible goal. For example, one team working on poor inventory control in their warehouse mapped out a future state which simply said everyone knew exactly what to do and never made any mistakes. Wave a wand and achieve perfection. A more realistic future state was to fix the cycle counting program which would find and eliminate the reasons for poor inventory control.

Common Error 2 is to fall into the trap, told by lean charlatans, that the people who do the work know how to fix it. The correct meaning of that concept is how the people who do the work know what needs to be fixed. They are the ones who must create the current state map and identify the waste. The people who do the work may not know about best practices and emerging trends. They need to research and work with others to craft a better future. I am reminded of the many times I’ve been told how the software did not work and something new needed to be purchased. A little knowledge on the current software often leads to a vastly improved future state without a big investment.

Summary – Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping is one of the most powerful lean tools.

The key aspects for success are:

  • Team based with the people who do the work
  • Systematic approach with simple steps everyone understands
  • Current state maps that identify the waste
  • Future state maps that paint a vision with less waste

One final point is to realize it takes repetition to become proficient at value stream mapping. Like a detective just seems to know which lead to follow, a great mapper knows what level of detail is appropriate and when the map has all the information – whether current state or future state.

value stream map summary

Want More?

View a slide show on a systematic approach to current state mapping

View a slide show on a systematic approach to future state mapping

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