Value Stream Mapping: Ferrari or Pinto?

Mike Osterling and I decided to write our latest book, Value Stream Mapping,  to deepen people’s understanding about this powerful improvement methodology. In particular, we wanted to help the many organizations that:

  1. Remain unfamiliar with the practice
  2. Underutilize the method
  3. Misuse the tool

Notice that I refer to value stream mapping as a practice, a method, and a tool. Used properly, it’s all of these things.

This post addresses #2 and #3 above. In skilled hands and in an organization with sufficient will, value stream mapping can generate “Ferrari results.” But all too often, we see organizations achieving “Pinto results.” (Yes, I recognize that I’m dating myself by mentioning the plight of the Pinto.)

I’d like to see more Ferraris racing down the improvement highway on their journey to outstanding organizational performance. Ferraris are known for rapid acceleration, tight steering and responsiveness, and the ability to navigate hairpin turns with precision. What organization wouldn’t want to possess those same traits?

The way to achieve Ferrari results is to avoid six common failings:

1. Mapping Solely as a Work Design Exercise

All too often, we see people using value stream maps mechanistically as a tool solely to improve value stream performance. You may be thinking, “So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t value stream improvement the point?” Definitely. But why stop there? Why aim solely for value stream performance improvement when you can also achieve cultural shifts, build stronger leadership teams, and accelerate your organization’s ability to learn?

By involving leaders, using an effective Charter to communicate and gain consensus, holding daily briefings, and managing a clearly defined transformation plan, organizations learn how to operate with higher degrees of clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement.

2. Mapping to Make Tactical Improvements

While value stream maps are very different from process maps, many people confuse the two techniques. VSMs view work holistically—from macro perspectives—and the outcome is an improvement strategy. Process maps view work from micro perspectives and provide the means for tactical improvement.

This key difference creates the need to involve different teams (leaders vs. front-line) in creating the maps.  Leaders have the authority to make strategic future state design decisions, whereas the average manager or front-line worker doesn’t carry that authority.

3. Creating VSMs During Kaizen Events

Related to #2 above, Kaizen Events are focused, highly structured improvement activities where execution of change is the goal (vs. a value stream improvement plan) and involve a sequestered team primarily of the people who do the work being improved. Value stream maps involve primarily the people who oversee the work being improved and who, therefore, carry the authority to make strategic decisions concerning policy, functional involvement, and customers.

Again, kaizen events are tactical; value stream maps are strategic. If improving the value stream is the goal, value stream mapping is done well in advance of the kaizen event(s) that may be used to address the specific improvement needs identified during value stream mapping.

4. Creating Maps but Taking No Action

There’s no sense in going through the effort of creating value stream maps unless you’re going to move straight into making improvement. All too often we see beautifully created value stream maps hanging on a wall, but no action has been taken to realize the future state design.

Many organizations are far more comfortable and proficient with design than execution. The execution that follows value stream mapping can help break deep-seeded organizational habits of slow or no action, to that turning intention into results becomes second nature.

5. Mapping with the Wrong (or No) Team

This is arguably the greatest value stream mapping “sin.” Let me be clear: value stream mapping is a team sport. It is not meant for belts of any color or CI champions to execute on their own. After all, a baseball team’s not going to win many games if the pitcher’s the only one practicing. Nor—recalling numbers 2 and 3 above—should value stream maps be created solely by middle managers, team leads, or front-line staff who aren’t authorized to make significant future state design decisions.

it bears repeating: value stream mapping is a leadership-heavy activity because it results in leadership-level decisions about the future state. Middle managers don’t typically possess big-picture thinking nor the authority to design a future state that yields the type of significant results that are common when value stream mapping is well-executed.

As an example, a recent leadership-heavy value stream mapping team projects the future state will result in: shortened order fulfillment lead time from 17.5 weeks to 7 weeks, freed capacity equivalent to 22 FTEs (full-time equivalents), and an additional $25 million in working capital. It’s unlikely that a manager-level or below mapping team would have designed a future state that could achieve these projected results.

6. Maps with No Metrics

You can’t measure success without a baseline from which to measure. Wanna lose 5 pounds? If you don’t know that you started from a baseline of 150 lbs and that you now weigh 143 lbs, you’ll never be able to declare victory. The same logic applies to business. Yet, we frequently see so-called value stream maps without metrics of any sort.

The first question I ask when being brought in to lead value stream improvement is: “What problem are you trying to solve?” (A problem is a gap between where you are and where you’d like or need to be.) This question is closely followed by: “How do you know you have a problem?” Without metrics, both questions are nearly impossible to answer. And if you can’t answer those questions, you should probably move on to another problem. After all, in most organizations, there’s no shortage of problems to be solved!

By avoiding these common value stream mapping pitfalls, you’ll be able to begin achieving Ferrari-like results and zip down the improvement highway at speeds that you never thought were possible.  Pintos didn’t accelerate nor navigate very well, and when a little force was applied had the propensity to explode.

So which would you rather have: a Ferrari or Pinto? The choice is purely yours.

Visit to purchase Value Stream Mapping through Amazon.

by Mike Sporer reply

“VSMs view work from macro, holistic perspectives and the outcome is an improvement strategy. Process maps view work from micro perspectives and provide the means for tactical improvement.”

That speaks volumes, Karen. Working with governments and non-profits, it is difficult even getting to the first step. Tools alone don’t make for continuous improvement. An overarching mind-set needs to be the emphasis.

I just keep trying! Governments and non-profits know nothing about customer service let alone VSM’s:) One non-profit where I am a board member does get it…that keeps me trying.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Keep up the good fight, Mike. It’s important work you’re doing, helping government grow more efficient and effective. I’ve been using VSM successfully in government and it’s often an important “aha” that leads to the next step and the next and the next.

    Government’s not the only type of organization hung up on the tools and not understanding that the tools aren’t “it.” It’s a pretty common problem. Hang in there and keep pluggin’ along. Meet organizations where they are. If you keep moving the needle, they will experience tremendous results and taxpayers, beneficiaries and stakeholders will benefit.

by Mike Sporer reply

Sage advice, Karen! Thank you…

by Scot Burbacher reply

Having consumed and thoroughly enjoyed your book and all of your webinars on VSM, I recently attended a VSM overview session offered by an accomplished Lean Six Sigma guru who works for a worldwide leading provider of critical infrastructure technologies. Their organization has been highly effective at building Lean and Six Sigma into the DNA of how they do business, and they use value stream mapping extensively. Interestingly enough, their approach to VSM involves enlisting front-line staff on their VSM teams. I inquired about this, and offered your leadership-heavy team concept as a counterpoint. The response I got was essentially “do you think folks at that high of a level are going to have any clue what the day-to-day work is in these processes?” I then asked: “Well shouldn’t VSMs be at more of a high-level, strategic level? And therefore wouldn’t it be better to have a leadership-based team who can speak to the value stream in a more strategic way?” Her response here was basically to say that the kind of strategy that leadership should be involved in are matters such as deciding whether or not to expand into new markets or whether or not to adjust an SLA because the underlying business process has been proven to be capable of responding much quicker than the current SLA states.

In my position as a consultant with state government agencies (where Lean maturity is typically nowhere near the level of the above mentioned organization), I’m trying to reconcile these two opposing viewpoints and figure out what makes the most sense for my situation. Are there any thoughts you could offer? Can you envision any sort of scenarios or conditions where it would make sense to fill your VSM teams with front-line staff?

    by Karen Martin reply

    HI Scot. In a word: no. I can’t see a scenario where a VSM team consists of front-line staff and the results are any where near what they could be (and are!) with a higher level team. The frontlines aren’t cut out of the process. The gemba walks during VSM are extremely powerful.

    It sounds like your leadership team believes that they can delegate improvement 100% and have no involvement, which is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, internal people often have a difficult time convincing their leadership teams what the right thing to do is. One thing you could try is to give them the VSM book with the leadership pages earmarked as is found on the leadership reading guide available on my VSM page (downloads button): I wish you much success.


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