Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a great tool to map processes. It started in manufacturing where it is used to understand physical and information flows and quickly spread to administrative processes. It is even used in hospitals.
As Product Development is a process, so yes VSM can be used.
However, development activities have some specificities compared to manufacturing which require to adapt VSM to Development and also bring some limitations to VSM used in Development.
The first limitation is similar to manufacturing if the activity is high mix / low volume. In such a case, the specificities may outweigh the commonalities, thus drastically reduce the interest of VSM as the time spent to map the process vs. valuable informations to get from the map isn’t worth it.
If this isn’t the case, and if the Product Development process is underperforming and needs improvement, VSM “manufacturing-style” can be used to map and analyse the development process despite other limitations. It is “good enough” to surface the biggest obstacles to better performance.
Having used VSM to describe and analyze an automotive equipment maker product development process, I could identify improvements leading to a potential 30 to 40 % Lead Time reduction depending of the nature of the project. This is consistent with what I call the Lean rule of thirds, i.e. reducing wastes or improving performance 30%.
Later on, with a more mature Product Development process this type of VSM may show its limitations.
VSM pitfalls and limitations in Development
There are many differences between manufacturing and development. For instance the definition of “value-added” is relatively easy in manufacturing while more elusive in development. Takt time is a key concept for production but does not make sense in development*. Loops are wastes in manufacturing but iterations are valuable in development.
*Takt time in manufacturing is the rate of customers’ demand. In development takt time can be the rate of new projects or product launches decided by the company.
Concurrent activities are seldom in manufacturing but common in Lean Development, and so on.
Therefore the transposition of Lean Manufacturing methods and tools is possible to some extend but with great care and adaptation. One warning about this is to be found in “The Lean Machine” Productivity Press. pp. 131–132:
Key learning about the difference between TPS and LPD is summarized in the advice Jim Womack gives Harley Davidson’s Dantaar Oosterwal; “Don’t try to bring lean manufacturing upstream to product development. The application of Lean in product development and manufacturing are different. Some aspects may look similar, but they are not! Be leary of an expert with experience in lean manufacturing that claims to know product development”.
On the other hand, Allen Ward and Durward Sobek recommend to “learn from Lean Manufacturing to improve labs and prototype shops”, in Lean Product and Process Development, Lean Institute Inc, 2014 second edition p.42.
Other resources about VSM for Product Development exist. Here are only few chosen examples:
Ronald Mascitelli discusses the usage of VSM in his book “Mastering Lean Product Development”, Technology Perspectives 2011, pp. 187-190.
There is a paper of interest by Darwish, Haque, Shehab, and Al-Ashaab, “Value stream mapping and analysis of product development (engineering) processes” that can be downloaded here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272565743
Finally, the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI, MIT) proposed the Product Development Value Stream Mapping (PDVSM) specifically designed for Product Development. The Manual version 1.0 (Sept. 2005) can be downloaded for free from several sources, including MIT:
Value Stream Mapping does apply to Product Development with limitations in mind and/or adaptation to the specificities of development activities. Before rushing to map such a process, give yourself time to consider if the time invested will really be worth it, especially if the process is not likely to be common to many new developments.
VSM is great but is only one tool among others. The value of the analysis does not come from the map but from the “brain juice” the analyst(s) throw in to sift out improvement potential and identify issues and obstacles to overcome.
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