Value Stream Wrapping

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.


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

8 thoughts on “Value Stream Wrapping

  1. Gary

    Value Stream Mapping is a messy process. Neat and pretty gets in the way of collecting the information. I really prefer to grab all the data I can and worry about how pretty the paper looks at a later date (if ever!). To me VSM is the start of change. I remember someone telling me that: “No one like change except a baby — and the baby screams all through the change process.” Let’s remember the intent of this process.

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    I have been “forced”, against my better judgement, to participate a few sessions where the mapping was done digitally. Here’s how it affected the team. First, and most importantly, they put most of their attention on formatting and wordsmithing. Their attention was not on understanding what the map was telling them. The second problem was that they couldn’t see the whole map on the projector screen at once, and some of the insights were hidden because of this.

    If you want a digital version of the map, either take a picture of it when you’re done or have someone in the background building it in parallel while the team is focused on the map.

    The primary purpose of the observation and mapping is to build a clear and common understanding of current reality. You can’t do that just by building a map. You need dialog and activity to build that understanding.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh


    Agree with Jaime totally. I have fought the battle and asked the people to trust me. Once they see the results on paper first, they usually get it.

    Bryan O.
    Global CI Leader

  4. Ryan Cartier

    I prefer a pencil and paper in lean implementations also.
    The only time I produce a digital (excel, visio or VSM software) version of a value stream map is for some type of report out, management presentation or record – but I feel this 2nd production (rework) of a cleaned up version is waste;
    and if it is to be used for training purposes, a better method would be to coach employees and executives through their own materials and information flow.

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  6. autoditactical

    This thread conjures up in my mind the old adage “beauty is only skin deep”. From the post and the comments here I don’t think I’d get much arguement. It also reminds me of a former colleague of mine who seemed to know all of the Lean Japanese buzzwords (kanban, gemba, etc.) and seemed to think that working these words into every conversation he would somehow impress people, and by simply saying the words something good was accomplished. He thought that the Japanese people were the first in history to think lean. I used to have great fun at his expense by working a few old adages into the conversation myself (‘a stich in time saves nine’, and ‘measure twice,cut once’ were a couple of my favorites). Taken by themselves, there’s nothing wrong with buzzwords, it’s just that for myself, I’d like to see more people proactively going forward while thinking outside the box.

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