Value streams that go over a cliff are a problem!

 A value stream is a set of activities that are intended to create and deliver a consistent set of deliverables that are of value to customers. Organizations map value streams as a tool to visualize the flow of work. Once visualized, the flow can be improved and the organizational structure can be changed in the service of delivering more value to the right people (at the right time and at the right price). The problem is that value stream mapping, while conceptually simple, is in reality almost always hard! There are several common issues that pop up or cause trouble when developing a value stream map. They are:

  1. What we think we know is not what really happens. Many organizations approach value stream mapping either by reviewing documentation that purports to define the workflow or by gathering managers in a room (real or virtual) and begin drawing pictures. The problem is that what happens in real life does not always (ever?) line up exactly to the documentation or the memory of managers. This makes ideas generated from the map and measurement data collect suspect.   
  2. Not involving people who influence how work is actually done. In most organizations, there is “the person” who understands how to get things done, to make things happen, even if they have to take liberties with the published value stream. I once knew a warehouse supervisor who could walk out onto the warehouse floor, talk to a few people and a customer’s order would pop to the head of the queue and get out the door to make a customer happy or to ensure a sale. The cool thing was that he could make things happen without disrupting something else that was going on. “The person” (or persons) need to be involved in developing value stream maps and have a voice in implementing any subsequent changes, 
  3. Detail is the enemy of the big picture. Value stream mapping follows the transformation of raw materials (idea and requirements) into value. Diving into the details of steps obscures the big picture.  
  4. Limiting the organizational scope of the Value Stream Map. Value streams should reflect the full flow of how an idea is transformed into value from a business point of view.  Curtailing the view to a specific part of the flow or to support areas outside of the flow can yield a jaundiced view of how an organization delivers value and ideas for change that might not improve the flow of value.
  5. Not addressing the non-linear sequence of most knowledge work. Value stream mapping originated in the lean manufacturing movement. Manufacturing often follows a linear process; raw materials in, things are created and assembled, sales, shipping, and support – repeat.  Knowledge work is often far less linear. Problems include shared resources, changing requirements, each piece requires a different amount of time to complete, and more. The approach for mapping and measuring value streams that exhibit non-linear flow needs to be tailored.

Value stream mapping is important as a step in understanding and improving the flow of value for any organization.  In the next few essays, we will take a deeper dive into each of these issues and provide suggestions for addressing them.