Gaining Clarity through Value Stream Mapping

In The Outstanding Organization, I assert that outstanding organizations operate with high degrees of clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement. In the chapter on clarity, I present the various way in which ambiguity and lack of awareness creates confusion and misperception, which can lead to poor decisions and improper action.

In Value Stream Mapping, Mike Osterling and I show how powerful it is when a leadership team gains insight into how work flows (or doesn’t flow) across the enterprise and making strategic improvement decisions based on that new-found understanding.

Let’s take a look at two ways in which value stream mapping boosts organizational clarity.

First, in most organizations no one person can describe—even at a high level—the sequence of events required to transform a customer request into a good or service. At the end of the first day of value stream mapping, most of the leaders on the mapping team sit back and say,  “I had no idea that’s how we operate. No wonder we have so many fires to fight.” The aha’s are powerful—and sobering.

Without the degree of clarity that seeing workflow provides, organizations attempt to solve performance problems with inappropriate means:

  • endless reorganizations
  • bashing suppliers (the very entities the organization is dependent on to provide value)
  • inserting inspection, reviews, and quality audits into an already overly complicated work flow
  • creating internal SLAs (service level agreements) without addressing the root cause for work delays

Current state value stream mapping provides the level of clarity leaders need to make the highly effective operational and business decisions—and have needed all along.

The process of gathering relevant metrics before and during mapping forces leaders to confront the common fact that they don’t know enough about their business to even begin to achieve outstanding performance. And seeing how redundant approvals have been built into a low-trust work system provides the insight to free the organizational shackles that slow delivery and create unnecessary expense. A client I worked with recently discovered that they had  built 26 separate approvals into a value stream that couldn’t meet customer expectations.

The other clarity booster comes from a team’s common discovery that the language they use is inconsistent and ambiguous, which creates performance-eroding confusion and the risk of improper decisions and actions. At some point in every single value stream mapping activity I’ve facilitated, the team realizes that terms mean different things to different people and that multiple terms exist for the same action, document, or product type.

In a recent mapping activity, the team spent significant time unraveling confusion around “booking” an order versus a “booked” order. You would think that a “booked order” is merely the past tense state of “booking an order.” Not so. After a 20 minute discussion to clear the confusion, it turned out that they are two different actions that result in two different data elements in two different IT systems.

I truly believe that value stream mapping is one of the only activities an organization can undergo that is consistently effective in revealing the ambiguous language that trips an organization up and creating an action plan to correct it.

The additional clarity boosters that leadership teams commonly experience during value stream mapping include:

  • understanding what various data elements really mean (versus how they’ve been interpreting it
  • seeing how disconnected their IT systems are and how many workarounds their teams have built to accommodate the disconnects
  • learning how much of the time work just sits because there’s no one available to do it
  • discovering how many “cooks in the kitchen” there are—and how expensive that is
  • learning how poor the information quality is that is needed to produce high value for one’s customers

Value stream mapping provides a powerful means to rethink work systems and build more effective ones. Perhaps even more important is that it’s a sobering truth-telling machine. But wouldn’t you rather know so you can do something about it?


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