The Four Secrets of Successful Value Stream Mapping

The Four Secrets of Successful Value Stream Mapping

A Current State VSM showing every process in a small sheet metal fabrication factory.

In my 35-year manufacturing and supply chain career, the most powerful business tool that I have used is value stream mapping. Used well it can be the catalyst for transforming operations by identifying previously unknown waste, focusing improvement efforts where they deliver the most value and aligning business processes to the needs of customers.

What is a Value Stream Map

A value stream map is a special type of process map. A value stream map simultaneously presents the product and information flow for a business process. By examining both the product and information flow, value stream mapping enables businesses to understand both the location and magnitude of waste in the process and the information and communication flows that are driving that waste.

Typically, businesses start by developing a map of how the process is now, the Current State Map. They then design a better process by applying Lean methodology to create the Future State Map. When the future state map is established, the business then agrees an action plan to implement the future state.

You can learn more about value stream mapping from our blog, or from books such as John Shook’s “Learning to See”, which I consider the most useful book on the topic.

Value stream mapping has been   around for several decades, there is extensive literature on the topic, and it has been applied in a huge range of applications by thousands of practitioners. Despite this, often, I see value stream mapping applied badly and failing to deliver its potential. So here are some simple tips that can help you get the most out of this powerful   tool and avoid the common pitfalls.

Value Stream Mapping is a Team Sport

The temptation with value stream mapping is to head out with a copy of one of the books on the topic and start mapping yourself. The problem with this is that the purpose of value stream mapping is not just to record the process, but to improve the process. To achieve change you need to engage all the key functions and stakeholders involved.

That way everyone is involved in building both the current and future state maps, has the opportunity to give their input and can buy in to the changes proposed in the future state. We typically gather a cross functional team that cover the whole process from start to finish. For manufacturing this will typically involve a mix of decision makers and subject matter experts from sales, supply chain, manufacturing, logistics and warehousing.

Map the Whole Process

Value stream maps need to consider the whole process. In manufacturing or distribution this is often described as “dock to dock”. That is, every step of the process from the receiving dock where raw materials arrive on site to the shipping dock where finished goods are despatched to the customer.

It might seem easier just to apply value stream mapping to a single process or functional department, however this should be avoided. Firstly, much of the waste in value streams occurs at the boundaries between department or functions. If you just map a single department, you will not get to see this waste.

Even worse, your efforts to improve the department you are mapping may increase the waste in processes upstream and downstream of the department. It effectively defeats the whole purpose of value stream mapping, which is understanding the complete flow of value to the customer.

Current State Maps Alone Won’t Improve Your Business

I have a simple rule for value stream mapping – every current state must have a future state, every future state must have an action plan to implement it and every action plan must be actioned. Some businesses will want to do a current state map of every process. I think this is a pointless and ultimately damaging exercise.

It is much better to take one process and transform it through creating and implementing a better future state, rather than to map a dozen current states, which really achieves nothing other than some nice-looking pictures.

A key to this is not biting off more than you can chew. In John Shook’s book, Learning to See, he suggests that a future state should be implemented in six months. By setting such a short time horizon it means that you will select improvements that can be implemented in that time frame.

This way it is more likely to be implemented. Your future state then becomes your new current state, and you can then seek to find another six months’ worth of improvements. In my experience, six months is a little bit short, but I certainly would not want a future state that was going to take more than one year to implement as the longer it takes, the less likely it will be that the business will follow through on implementation.

Creating the Future State is Not Just Brainstorming

Once you have created the current state, you might be tempted to just ask everyone what they think the improvements could be. This is likely to reveal some improvements, most likely ones that the team members were already thinking about or advocating for prior to the creation of the map.

However, just brainstorming is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. Your new process is likely to just be a version of what you have already got. Instead, you need to follow a step-by-step process of applying Lean thinking to your value stream.

This starts with defining the takt time or rate of customer demand for your process, seeing whether processes can be eliminated or combined, deciding where to include pull or flow in the process and working out how to control the release of work to the factory to level the rate of production and prevent over-production.


Value stream mapping is a powerful tool, but one that needs to be applied correctly to deliver its benefits. I see all sorts of flow charts called value stream maps, which ignores the extensive literature available that describes a value stream map. Some practitioners ignore the information flow or mix it up with product flow.

Others just map departments, functions, or processes, which dramatically reduces the benefits and can even increase waste. In some cases, all I see are walls of multicoloured post it notes that are not connected and seem to not communicate anything useful about the process. A good value stream map should be like good handwriting, anyone who knows the language of value stream maps should be able to read it and understand the process. Use of standard symbols helps with this.

If you have been underwhelmed by your experience of value stream mapping, I suggest you consider the points above and if what you have done does not apply those tips, then perhaps it is time to try again.

Timothy McLean

Author: Timothy McLean

Timothy McLean is the Managing Director of TXM Lean Solutions and is an author of Lean books.