Value Stream Mapping is a tool for pivoting

“Pivot” has become a buzzword in business, referring to a shift in strategy or a significant change made in product, service or business model as a result of experiment.

When a solution or an assumption does not lead to or deliver the expected outcome, a significant change may be required to adjust to the reality instead of sticking too long with the flawed parameters.

Pivoting suggests a change of direction and this is the intent with Value Stream Mapping (VSM): pivoting from vertical to horizontal.

VSM reveals the physical and information flows across an organization (horizontally) end to end, which is “pivoting” from the traditional point of view which is vertical, divisional or departmental way of considering organizations and responsibilities.

By pivoting, VSM reveals all the waste created by local optimizations and required adjustments at interfaces, e.g. duplicate inventories, buffers, different batch sizes or different rules and policies, etc.

VSM is a tool for pivoting or shifting the point of view, the way we look at value creation with the customer waiting at the end of the value stream.

Together with the improvement potentials revealed, Value Stream Map enables pivoting: changing the process, the product or the business model in some extend.

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Start less, finish more


Chris HOHMANN – Author

Four words of wisdom spoken by a manager in a department notorious for its long lists of actions (note I didn’t write action plan) and promises but a lousy transformation rate.

Looking closer on their usual way to solve problems or work on improvement revealed a common flaw in many organizations: the open loop.

The open loop is the belief that things will get done (simply) because someone put them on a list and presented them, without a control and feedback loop to ensure things really get done.

Usually the presenter refrains from any formal commitment and, as so often, what is called an action plan is a mere brainstorming or a wish list at best.

Complacent managers don’t demand due dates nor ownership, accountability neither clear assignment of tasks to someone.

As no one will track and check the real outcome of envisioned actions, they’ll get done only if someone has a personal benefit in it and/or by goodwill.

Complaints for the status quo remain rare as complainers fear being put in charge of carrying out or solve what they complain about.

Thus, no complaints, no problem.

Apparently, as nobody complains, issues seem to be solved, confirming that no closer tracking is needed.

The issues remaining hopelessly unsolved, people keep suffering in silence or find ways around, by-passes, arrangements, usually off standards and uncontrolled, sometimes hazardous.

These ‘solutions’ bring new problems, themselves being handled in the same way and gnawing on performance.

When the wind suddenly change, with a new demanding boss in charge usually, the amount of corrective actions could sweep tsunami-like onto the staff.

There is where the four words of wisdom come in: start less, finish more.
Way too late though.


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You don’t give me answers, you ask me questions

He’s a former colleagues of mine I worked with during 10 years. Let’s call him Jack. He’s about 10 years younger, cocky, went from graduation directly to consulting and as he stated himself one day, “can’t stand being unable to answer a client’s question right away”.

The opposite of me in many aspects and that’s perhaps why we worked well together for so long. The biggest differences between us are that I have no problem to admit I don’t know and I manage silence rather well.

What long flattered and puzzled me about Jack was his repeated “compliment”: You don’t give me answers, you ask me questions.

Well, this is what managers are supposed to do: help their staff to find answers and solutions. Even a manager is not supposed to have answers to all questions, but he should at last know how to tackle problems.

The questions I asked Jack were for both of us. They were a way to structure my own thinking about the issue as I didn’t have the answer myself. The questions were the logical loud spoken path to put pieces together, check the assumptions, simplify the problem and try to craft a possible solution or at least a satisfactory answer.

Asking questions was an invitation for Jack or others to join the exercise and connect our brainpower together. I could make believe I knew the answers but played it old wise man leading his mentee to find the correct answer by himself as a part of his initiation. But no, asking question is still my quiet and indirect way to say “I don’t know but I am willing to help you find the answer”.

Knowing Jack, it was a wonder he didn’t disregard me for being so openly ignorant, but on the contrary he kept seeking my questions.

Over the years, bits of explanations surfaced. One of them was I was a cool manager not giving direct orders (command and control) but helping his teammates to learn. Something so basic in my opinion it does not deserve any praise.

What Jack never said in such way but appeared to me recently (and still is an assumption) is that asking questions and logically analyzing the problem together, I simply showed him respect.

I did not care about my rank nor image, I gave a hand when asked for, worked with lower ranking associates, admitting I didn’t know. Furthermore, for highly educated and intelligent people it was a sign of respect not to throw them any answer but encourage them to analyze, try and solve by themselves.

Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve seen so many managers who couldn’t stand not to know and gave just any answer and left you on your own with it.

How many would I compliment for their managing skills?

No so common after all.


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Tales from the Pyramid – the hole in the pyramid

No senior manager ever denied his/her organization does not suffer a hole in the pyramid. I coined this expression (originally in French) after seeing it in all companies I visited as a consultant.

Pyramid with a hole

The hole in the pyramid is a management vacuum left by middle managers who do not (fully) take over their management role. Most often those managers:

  • are former lower level employees promoted to management, e.g. best worker promoted team leader, foreman or even production manager, or technical expert
  • promoted to manager, e.g. R&D or production engineer promoted to department manager, etc.
  • didn’t get any training or coaching about management, had to self-teach mostly by trial-and-error
  • are proud of their promotion and happy about compensation and benefits
  • are awkward and uneasy about management and leave it (to others) whenever possible
  • hide in paperwork, reports, and Excel sheets, behind computer screens in remote offices
  • are source of resentment from both their boss and subordinates.

Their boss cannot rely on them and often have to substitute themselves for them. The subordinates and often former same-level colleagues will not get fair treatment or decisions nor support in execution.

>Lisez-moi en français

The promoted manager inclines either to take the hard way to wipeout former friendship, the soft way trying to please everyone or no way at all, trying to push (unpleasant) decisions up to his/her boss.

Lego_022aSome of them cannot switch to management and incline to return to operational tasks whenever possible instead. This is common among maintenance staff.

Others go an opposite way and refuse any task not compatible with their new status. Working all day behind a computer screen is a symbol of the busy manager, so no way to spend time on shopfloor or take care about the team. Of course this is a personal and convenient interpretation of management’s status.

The problem top management suffers from is the fact the hole in the pyramid is virtual: positions are manned but job isn’t done.

Top managers most often have to step-in, substitute themselves for lower position. Doing so distracts valuable and limited time for tasks which are not theirs and lack time to fulfill the tasks they’re paid for. I use to say they get pulled down.

Victims and guilty

To my surprise, every time I describe a situation in such terms to managers, they heartily agree, all too happy to find an empathetic consultant understanding their daily suffering.

Well, only until they hear the rest of my discourse.

The top managers are, in my point of view, victims and guilty. Their guilt is not to coach and develop their subordinates in a way they get empowered and able to take over their job, including the unpleasant tasks.

Sometimes this is a source of power: letting others be dependant on the boss makes him/her indispensable. In the long term though, this can cost the boss the next promotion as he/she is indispensable where he/she currently is.

Sometimes it is simply the weakness not to take time to coach, pretending to do it faster or better instead. I know, I behave in such manner myself sometimes in the past. I must confess that letting subordinates pull you down can be pleasant: easier tasks give a rest from boring, challenging or delicate higher level tasks.

But this is not what is awaited from high ranking managers.

Mending the hole

What to do with the hole? The answer of course depends on the specific situation, but giving a chance to the person holding the position is a good start:

  • having a face to face discussion about the requirements, the mutual expectations, the gap and how to close the gap
  • give the manager coaching, training if necessary
  • set objectives the SMART way and monitor results
  • discuss the results and seek consensus about the next step
  • if no consensus in sight, the boss is the boss

Sometimes efforts are useless, it is the wrong person for the job.

I remember several cases in which the head of department was the wrong person and obviously suffering from the situation. The proposal to return the person in his/her expertise, excellence or comfort zone, usually the previous position was welcome and the story ended reasonably well.
In some other cases there was no other option than sacking.

The hole has to be mended with new recruitment.

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Five good reasons to gemba walk

1. See what changed

Manufacturing shop floor or administrative processes are like gardens: things develop by themselves, not always the way it was expected.

If you have a garden or even a pot with a plant, you may have experienced that regardless to the effort you pay to grow something, it does not always grow the way you expected or something else grew instead.

It is the same in operations, despite procedures, rules and reports, what was intended often develops in some deviant way or does not develop at all. It is like discovering weeds that grew stealthy while expecting the desired flowers or vegetables to bloom.

Just as some weeds can grow overnight, some small deviations can affect processes. Only by frequent visits can these deviations be noticed before they develop into a major problem.

Staff on the shop floor and directly involved may not notice such deviations. They may lay out of staff focus or are often “solutions” to bypass difficulties or problems. In the second case, staff took a decision without full knowledge or without assessing all the possible negative side effects.

A manager in his gemba walk may notice the deviation and with his broader point of view, understand the potential trouble.

It is not that a manager / executive has an inborn ability to see such things, but having lesser detailed knowledge than shop floor’s subject matter experts, he/she may wonder and ask about things staff involved do not pay attention to any longer. Most often, deviations are discovered because someone asked a question about an odd thing he/she could not understand.

If the gemba walk is not frequent enough, the deviation may remain unnoticed long enough to develop as a real problem, while frequent tours may help sighting such potential problem before they actually become one.

Like a frequent visited garden is better tended than one which looks neglected with all the weeds that grew high and strong amidst the flowers, processes and shop floors reflect the attention management pays.

2. Stay connected

Managers and executives are not expected to know every detail of operations, yet frequent gemba walks help them to keep knowledgeable about most important things and keep an overview.

I feel embarrassed for a manager each time he/she must ask someone else to get the answer to my (consultant) questions. The questions I ask are related to the persons’ position. If they cannot answer it’s because most of the time they’re not connected.

Of course this is an evidence of some management flaw and a good reason to dig deeper in my assessments.

Sometimes the span of responsibility is so wide that a single person cannot be knowledgeable and the question is obviously for another staff member. Most of the time though, the manager cannot answer because of his/her disconnect with operations.

A periodical gemba walk maintains the link and keeps manager connected with the reality, even so not in the nitty-gritty details.

3. Make sure staff follows you

Management too often issue their instructions during a short meeting or via mail, procedure and take for granted the staff will carry out the instructions like a disciplined line of command in the army.

Alas, employees seldom stick to this old fashioned way of working and “orders” are not automatically carried out, or not exactly the way it was expected.

Remaining cut off with the staff in a remote office can lead to some nasty surprises when objectives are not achieved and no in-between check was performed.

>Read my Tales from the Pyramid post series about this

Staff may also not follow the instructions because of some misunderstanding.

In any case, a gemba walk can make sure staff follows instructions properly and timely.

4. Walk the talk

Almost all managers are good about the talk. They’re used to present the way processes work, how operations are carried out and how value is flowing. But most of the time managers repeat what procedures and quality system require.

It happens that the walk after the talk shows a different story and when it happens, it’s embarrassing for management. Nobody believes the too often heard excuse: “usually it’s not like this”. It only adds to the poor impression and the embarrassment.

Periodical gemba walks help managers for the talk and identify what to improve so that the walking the talk reflects the reality.

5. Pay respect

A gemba walk is not (only) an inspection tour. It is a way to show interest to people carrying out the tasks necessary to company’s success. Those in turn are usually proud about their achievements and like to see management caring about them.

A gemba walk is an opportunity to check if everything needed for their job is available, usable, etc. as the resources there are important for company’s success.

A gemba walk is also an opportunity to show the lower level staff they are important.

A sincere good morning can make a person’s day. Asking a question about a process step and true listening can make a person proud to explain the ins-and-outs and motivate him/her.


Management is easily trapped in the ivory tower. Many decisions and problems to solve are brought to its remote place and if managers do not pay attention, they get disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday shop floor life.

A periodical – short – gemba walk is a good preventive action with many positive side effects.

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