Value Stream Wrapping

Posted on January 5, 2012

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Gazing into a microscope as a college sophomore, I sketched the innards of a single-celled critter as part of biology exam.  I knew what I was looking for, but according to my professor, was a bit lazy transferring my observations to paper.  The result: no points for my illegible artwork.  I pleaded my case: “I’m not an artist.”

“Observation without sharing,” the prof replied, “has no value.  Practice your drawing.”

Thirty years later, I recalled the professor’s admonition as I stood in my company’s machine shop scribbling my first value stream map on a sheet of notepaper.    A few weeks before, our consultant from TSSC (Toyota Supplier Support Center), Bryant S, had given our improvement team a short tutorial on what he referred to as material and information flow diagramming, or M&I for short.  (M&I was Toyota’s name for what we now call value stream mapping.)  Drawing about half a dozen symbols on an easel, Bryant explained, “Here are few M&I symbols that you can use to share from a TPS point of view what you observe on the shop floor.  Take paper and pencil with you to the floor, and record what you see.  Your objective is to describe the current condition there in relation to the ideal TPS condition and then develop a realistic target and improvement plan that will fit on an 11×17 sheet.”  (Today this plan-on-a-page is referred to as an A3, a nifty way to capture and share what we see.)

My homework was to complete an A3 in my machining department using M&I diagramming. Regrettably, my artistry had not improved remarkably in three decades, so I cleverly (so I thought) transferred my observations to an excel worksheet using Microsoft drawing symbols to approximate the standard notation that Bryant had provided.  I anxiously awaited his return visit to show him my high tech rendering.

Bryant smiled when he first saw my handiwork.  “You should spend more time observing, and less time making it pretty.”

“I’m not an artist,” I pleaded, “and this is the only way I could fit my observations onto a single page.”

“If you can’t fit the key points of the observation on a single page,” Bryant responded, “maybe you’re missing the key points.  Keep it simple.  It doesn’t need to be artwork, but the process should follow a few simple rules.  It’s a means, not an end.  Bryant sent me back to the drawing board with advice:

  • Keep it simple – pencil, eraser, and a single sheet of paper.
  • Keep the TPS ideal in mind.  (He wouldn’t tell me explicitly what this ideal was, but based on hints, I took it to include perfect quality, exact quantity, lowest cost and immediate delivery.)
  • Take it to the workplace and observe directly to understand the gap between current and ideal.

Fast forwarding to 2012, I have a little better appreciation for the TSSC consultant’s concerns when I visit Lean ‘war rooms’ covered with VSM wallpaper: yards of paper roll and post-it notes; imposing but usually not illuminating.  A single sheet, yes; but a tad larger than A3 size.  Often key measures like Takt time or symbols like the push production arrow ( ) are absent, indicating a lack of interest in the TPS ideal.  How much of this scroll was written at the workplace, I wonder, and who goes to the war room to share?

I have an idea for recycling these scrolls (see right):

At the other extreme are the many computerized versions of VSM, offered as improved versions of the manual process. Today, there are hundreds of software tools designed to ‘streamline’ and ‘upgrade’ the VSM process.  Many have integrated other bells and whistles including hybrid VSM/process maps and statistical analysis techniques.  Not simple, not from the floor, almost never with the TPS ideal condition as a guidepost.  These souped-up versions of my 1996 Excel attempt run the risk, like PowerPoint presentations, of focusing resources on appearance over substance. They are pretty, but too often hidden away from most employees and the workplace, both during and after their creation.

Maybe I’m just showing my age, or maybe sometimes a pencil and an 11×17 sheet of paper is best.   What do you think?  Let me hear from you.

O.L.D.

BTW:  Speaking of sharing, mark you calendar for September 25-26, our 2012 Northeast Shingo Conference: Learning to Share.

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Posted in: Old Lean Dude