Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is probably the main analysis tool and the most used in the lean toolbox. Easy to understand and handle, VSM is the starting point of improvement workshops and kaizen events. It helps focusing on wastes and improvement potentials in any process.
The ease of use and popularity of VSM make them flourish on shop floor. What seems good news for continuous improvement at first glance may not be all that positive.
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Remember: while improvement opportunities are literally infinite in any environment, resources are always limited: time, availability, means…
Therefore, before rushing into Value Stream Mapping, it is necessary to focus on chosen areas and topics in order to make meaningful improvements and avoid wasting limited resources.
The worst waste would be to Value Stream Map a useless process, which would mean Map, analyze and improve a process that should be eliminated in first place.
This happens more frequently than one would think.
Countermeasures to problems and the 3% devious
Many existing processes in an organization are countermeasures and responses to problems. These problems were eventually solved once, but the process is still in place.
Should one therefore seek to optimize it or can wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate it altogether?
In the absence of statistical data on the occurrence of the problem, which is the most common case, the answer is tricky. Moreover, advocates of the process will argue that it is precisely because the process is in place no problem reappeared.
If these problems still show up in a low occurrence, are the costs of maintaining a process to prevent, resolve or dampen them consistent regarding the effects of these problems?
If not, all things being equal, isn’t it better to eliminate this process and support the relative lower cost of infrequent problems?
Finally, if the recurrence of problems is frequent, the process does not work and the right question is less about optimizing it than to invest in eradicating the problem.
An order of magnitude, probably more symbolic than real, is the management of 3%, a term due to Gordon Forward, former CEO of Chaparral Steel, which means the countermeasures in place are there for 3% of employees with deviant behavior, which penalizes 97 % of those keeping to the rules.
If a process exists because of 3% of the employees, it hides a management problem.
Should one therefore seek to improve such process?
Would it not be better, before drawing a single VSM line, to question if not simply eliminate this process?
Lack of coordination and strategic alignment
The second case is that of companies / organizations / corporations which do not coordinate lean initiatives, let shop floor / operations take local initiatives.
People in these lower levels reason and act according to their perceptions, they do not have the necessary global view nor the “zoom-out” to embrace the situation as a whole and see the uselessness of the process. They lack a kind of VSM of VSMs.
I remember at least two cases, industrial groups whose central lean offices asked the subsidiaries to run pilot improvement workshops on a process of their choice. Each workshop was required to start with a Value Stream Map.
In both cases, central lean offices had no strategy nor global plan. By default, they launched local bottom-up initiatives and assumed the people involved to get self convinced by the power and usefulness (read necessity) of a Lean transformation.
The potential problem with this approach is the risk to encourage enthusiastic launches but later put local initiatives on hold, possibly discard the improvements and order to redo on an other process, for the sake of alignment to strategic objectives or global coordination.
One can imagine all the frustration and loss of confidence of local actors if this should happen. They worked on improvements, accepted to change the way to achieve their tasks and possibly saw real improvements before a remote authority orders to stop and redo something else.
Not only all resources used in pilot workshops would have been wasted – even so it can be called investment in training – but the credibility and sustainability of such approach would surely be impaired. It certainly will be difficult to motivate again these people for another workshop.