The Human Side of Value Stream Mapping

When you think of value stream transformation, what are the most common desired outcomes that come to mind? Shorter lead times? Higher quality? Reduced expenses? Expansive thinkers often go beyond these classic performance indicators and aim for improvements such as shorter-to-market time for new products, greater market share, smoother acquisitions, and less painful annual budgeting cycles. These are all noble pursuits that can be accomplished more easily through the proven practice of value stream mapping. However, in our experience, the deepest transformational benefits from well-executed value stream mapping activities are often people-based.

In a recent interview with Ron Pereira of Gemba Academy, I shared a common outcome of value stream mapping efforts: organizational healing.

Take a listen:

In my view, improvement and organizational transformation are deeply psychological. Looking exclusively for tangible results ignores the reality that people are psychological beings. Being aware of and playing into human psychology can be tremendously healing—for both the individuals involved and the organization-at-large.

There are two key conditions value stream mapping helps create that are wickedly effective in achieving quantifiable performance improvement and are also humanistic at their core:

1. Leadership Alignment

The word “alignment” has been bandied about so much that it has achieved buzzword status. Buzzword or not, leadership alignment is critical for achieving outstanding performance. And it’s often missing.

planesIn our initial work with leadership teams, they’ll often declare, “Of course we’re aligned!” But when we listen to conversations, observe body language, and learn how an organization solves problems, we often see moderate to high degrees of leadership misalignment over issues that are fundamental to an organization’s success. Appearing to play well in the sandbox with one’s peers is not a valid indicator of what’s going on psychologically. And, what’s going on psychologically in every leader’s head is directly tied to how well the organization will perform.

Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes the organization should offer a new service or move into a new geographic area, while another believes the organization should focus on fundamentals. Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that a certain type of work belongs in his/her part of the organization and another leader believes it belongs elsewhere. Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that one part of the organization is under-performing, while another leader doesn’t see it.

Value stream mapping helps a leadership team align around organizational purpose, strategic direction, annual business goals, and improvement priorities. It provides a powerful forum for leaders to gain clarity, focus, consensus, and commitment.

Done well, value stream mapping shines a light into cobwebbed corners of an organization and allows them to be cleared. It surfaces the truth—unequivocally and unapologetically. It reveals the cracks in a company’s operation, the financial model it uses, how it sells its goods or services, and how it treats its suppliers, customers, and employees. It uses facts to challenge leadership biases and misperceptions. But it also creates a safe haven for the crucial conversations that need to occur so that the organization can heal itself and accelerate its journey to excellence.

With a newfound understanding of reality, leadership teams typically come together in profound ways. (It also surfaces very clearly when a leader will remain misaligned and needs to find a new home!) With a shared commitment for the future state and the improvement priorities needed to get there, they morph into a cohesive, collaborative whole that spreads to the frontlines and fuels the transformation process.

2. Easier Work

The second outcome that speaks to the human side of value stream mapping is around the work itself. Respect for people is a core tenet of Lean management and goes far beyond how one is treated in meetings, in hallways, and in the cafeteria. In fact, the greatest measure of how much respect for people is present in an organization is the degree to which each individual can succeed in doing his/her work and fully utilize his/her knowledge, skills, aptitude for learning, and creative potential (KSAC).

The Karen Martin Group 2Unfortunately, in many organizations, people are forced to work with kludgy work systems and processes that make it impossible to be successful, no matter how well-intended and highly skilled one is.

To make matters worse, people are often blamed for problems instead of first looking at the systems and processes that created the environment for the problems to occur.

Gathering a leadership team together to understand the current state of how value flows (or doesn’t flow) to customers creates a powerful venue for seeing how difficult it can be for staff to be successful. After the current state discovery process, many leaders have admitted that they were embarrassed by what they learned. But while developing a deep understanding of the current state can be sobering, it provides the leadership insight needed to launch true organizational transformation.

The process of streamlining workflows, closing gaps, correcting disconnects, and reducing redundancy and rework provides not only greater value for external customers, but a more humanistic and respectful work environment for the people who deliver that value.

Value stream mapping is far more than a tool to achieve quantifiable business performance improvement. It’s a management practice that helps build an appetite for surfacing the truth, solving problems, resolving complacency, and designing a better tomorrow. It helps an organization realize its full potential. And, done well, it deepens understanding, heals relationships, and brings a human side to business.

by Craig J Willis reply

Hi Karen, I completely agree that easier work is a huge, often missed, opportunity. It’s something we take a lot of time to focus on with our clients. In fact our product is designed to help small team start to visualize how things work today so they can make them simpler tomorrow.

But when working with larger companies we find there is often a conflict between this ‘design principle’ and the so called KPIs. For example, in one enterprise I worked with they wanted to improve quality. To do so they decided to include more quality gates and formalize decision making. On paper it looked great and everyone agreed it would make things better. In practice it made things much more complicated and therefore a lot more frustrating for the staff. Quality did improve but lead times got longer and attrition rose.

Now the focus is on simplicity but that’s a much harder, less tangible, thing to explain to people. At least it makes work interesting!

    by Karen Martin reply

    Craig – Thank you for your comment. If you apply lean thinking to the quality problem your client had, they would have first identified the root cause(s) for the problems and then used quality-at-the-source as a countermeasure. Adding “gates” or any type of inspection should only be a very short term solution to avoid having quality problems land in customers’ hands. Then the emphasis is on how to remove the need for those measures by using quality-at-the-source techniques to prevent the quality problems in the first place.

by Brian Lard reply

Thanks for sharing Karen!! One of the big challenges when speaking Lean and trying to implement tools usage is getting buy in. People are creatures of habit and naturally resist change. This article give good techniques on how to relate it to what’s in it for me and gain better participation, engagement, and sustainability.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Glad you enjoyed it, Brian!

by Willian reply

Thanks, Karen Martin! Your text can strongly help managers to really understand the value of VSM.

    by Karen Martin reply

    You’re most welcome, Willian. Just make sure that your value stream mapping teams have higher-level leaders on it than solely managers.

by Scott Carpenter reply

I agree with your concept of making work easier and would add that thinking autonomously while rethinking work generally leads to a leaner outcome. My experience is that organizations that focus workers and leaders on the elimination of waste (in all forms) will ultimately succeed. I would offer that VSM provide a wonderful forum to hear the voice of the worker. Unfortunately, my experiences in VSM workshops has proven to be more focused on the top down approach which really does not provide much opportunity for the worker to be heard. Great topic. Thanks for posting it.


    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Scott. Yes, it sounds as though you’ve been exposed to VSM workshops differently from how we view them. There are typically two ways to engage frontline workers and middle managers:

    1. Upfront during the planning cycle, their experiences, descriptions of problems, and ideas for improvement should be solicited. I prefer to hang flip-chart paper in the work areas that are part of the value stream with two columns: problems & ideas. The leader for that area that’s on the mapping team brings those flip-chart pages to the mapping activity.
    2. During the “go and see” stage of building the current state map, the leaders on the mapping teams walk the value stream (sometimes it’s a “virtual” walk) and they talk with the workers to surface problems and opportunities for improvement.

    Hopefully you can hold more effective value stream mapping efforts because you understand the importance of involving the workers — even in more strategic, leadership-heavy activities. All the best!

by Fabian Tabares reply

Hi Karen:
I´m in the process to startup a new operations facility (Packaging company) at Tj, my Corporate let me the oportunity to make my core team by myself.

I agree with your articule, that´s why I start to join a Human and Integrated People to become a Real Team, I think if the people be empathy and discipline, its a good start point to build over this a Lean System, of curse with rigth guidelines and correct VSM


Fabian Tabares

    by Karen Martin reply

    Congratulations, Fabian, on your new role! How wonderful to be able to apply Lean thinking from the beginning in designing and building a new operation! All the best for GREAT success!

by Ahmad reply

Great insight Karen.
After facilitating our first VSM in my hospital (using your book and advice as my main reference), I could see all the human side benefits unfold nicely and surprisingly in front of me. The “aha moments were many, the trust in the methodology to solve long standing problems that were addressed traditionally through useless meetings was huge, and the shift in the mindset of the value stream leaders as well as frontline staff from skepticisim to belief was very rewarding.I even won a bit with a senior staff in the VS who thought change would be impossible!
We are seeing changes in the TAT and quality of many processes in the VS, yet we are still monitoring the whole VSM to realize the main goal of streamlining the entire VS in the near future. Regardless of what the numbers say, the desire for endless and continous improvement I could see in the front line staff, and the decision to do another VSM this year by the same leaders are the real achievements for us.
Our VSM was also selected as a case study in the Middle East Healthcare Leadership Program delivered by INSEAD.
Thank you Karen, keep inspiring us!

    by Karen Martin reply

    Congratulations, Ahmad! I especially appreciate the shift in the mindset of value stream leaders and belief replaced frontline skepticism. Glad you’re sharing your success with others via INSEAD!

by Mark Greenhouse reply

Karen, first yours is a great book I’ve had it for a while now.

Secondly this insight is what firms should experience. I’ve just completed a Value Stream Map with a law firm, not the first one I’ve done.

The feedback from the senior team – we agree with it, we can see what needs to be improved and why, let’s get on.

It also generated a whole series of “what-ifs” that the team have been discussing.

I’d add the technique creates a bias for action.

I’ll promote this blog post to my improvement list in the near future.

best regards,

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you, Mark. I’m thrilled to hear the success you’re having with aligning leaders and getting results by starting first with value stream analysis. Continued success!

by Robert Pryor reply

Karen – Totally agree with your two points As valuable and foundational VSM is to the outcomes of Lean transformations, it seems as much benefit lay in the *process* you write about regarding the alignment of communication that takes place during a VSM event. I have found that most organizations and people in them overrate the quality of their communications, leading to a process of discovery or “aha moments” for the group. I think the word “alignment” is great acid test for how good the communication *really* is. In this area people often “don’t know what they don’t know.”

On your second point, I completely agree that management too often looks for the source of their problems in their people, without first evaluating their process (or lack of) that they require their people to follow.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thanks, Robert. Good point about overrating communication. As we talk about in the beginning of our book, Value Stream Mapping, one of the greatest problems in organizations is that there’s often not one person who describe the flow of work from a customer request to delivering on that request – even at a macro level. Imagine the difficulty in making decisions without that insight! Glad you enjoyed the post.

by Giuseppe Lovecchio reply

Great Job Karen!
We sometimes forget some basics in lean approach: respect for people, simplify, simplify, simplify….
And the above is so hard to do especially with globalized virtual teams, complex corporations and so on…
Your focus is key, in order to make the strategic high level value stream really delivering a great value to PEOPLE!
All the best,
Giuseppe Lovecchio

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hello Guiseppe! Yes, it’s all too easy to get caught up in getting results and forgetting how various Lean practices and tools transform the work environment and can improve the human experience. Thank you for commenting!

      by Robert Pryor reply

      Guiseppe and Karen – Important points you made. My personal new slogan is: “lean not mean”

        by Karen Martin reply

        Thank you, Robert. Yes, lean is anything but mean.

by Ladislav Zastresek reply

Hello Karen,

How lovely to hear about the psychology aspect in lean and VSM. I was happy to discover some more people such as Mike Rother and you dig down deaply into psychology within lean environment. It is part of Demings Sopk which he left I believe unexplored. I wish I found this article earlier as I have resigned my job, because of management wanting to reengineer processes without involvement of front line workers.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hello Ladislav – I’m sorry to year that your company was approaching improvement in a top-down way. It’s still stunningly common. I hope you find a wonderful new employer who values front-line involvement.


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