The Value Stream Map: It's Been Around Longer than You Think

Minitab Blog Editor | 11/19/2013

Topics: Project Tools

In looking for the answer to an unrelated quality improvement question the other day, I ran across a blog post that answers a question I'd had for a while: what's the origin of the value stream map? 

A value stream map (VSM) is a key tool in many quality improvement projects, especially those using Lean. The value stream is the collection of all of the activities, both value-added and non-value added, that generate a product or service that meets customer needs. The VSM shows how both materials and information flow as a product or service moves through the process value stream, helping teams visualize where improvements might be made in both flows.

In his post, Michel Baudin traces the history of a process map that accounts for both materials and information back to a text published in 1918, and provides examples and documentation of how this idea has been applied, transformed, and popularized since then.

There are two kinds of value stream maps, a current state map and a future state map. A current state value stream map shows what the actual process looks like at the beginning of a project. It identifies waste and helps you envision an improved future state. The future state map shows what the process should look like at the end of the project. Then, as the future state map becomes the current state map, a new future state map can be created and a plan implemented to achieve it.

Tools for Creating Value Stream Maps

You can use many tools to create a value stream map. At the most basic level, you just need paper and pencil. A group facilitator might use a whiteboard or cover a wall with paper, then give each work team involved in the process color-coded post-it notes. The team members put their tasks on the notes, place them in sequence, then draw lines between steps to show how the work flows. The group adds new steps and adjusts the map until it captures the process in its current state. 

More sophisticated value stream maps can be created with easy-to-use software. There are stand-alone VSM creation tools, and also VSM tools that are part of more comprehensive process improvement software packages.

Minitab offers value stream map tools in Engage, our software for executing and reporting on quality improvement projects and initiatives. This video provides a great overview of how the VSM tool works in Engage:

A Value Stream Map by Any Other Name...

I won't reiterate all the details on the history of the value stream map here. But I will share a theory about the name "value stream map" that I found particularly interesting. 

The idea of mapping the flow of information and materials through a process clearly predates the modern "value stream map." There are many potential terms that could be (and have been) applied to this tool; so what made the VSM term stick? Baudin attributes it to savvy marketing:

“Process Mapping,” “Materials and Information Flow Analysis,” are all terms that, at best, appeal to engineers. Any phrase with “value” in it, on the other hand, resonates with executives and MBAs... They readily latch on to a concept called “Value Stream Mapping,” even though their eyes would glaze over at the sight of an actual map. While this confusingly abstract vocabulary can be frustrating to engineers, it does serve the vital purpose of getting top management on board. The trick is to know when to use it — in the board room — and when not to — on the shop floor.

Makes you wonder what other quality tools might be renamed for greater appeal in the boardroom...

If you're interested in VSM, I encourage you to read Baudin's full post as well as the comments that follow it; you'll find some great insight, history, and practical information about when and where to use this tool. 

These blog posts also share some helpful tips:

Five Guidelines You Need to Follow to Create an Effective Value Stream Map

Four More Tips for Making the Most of Value Stream Maps