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The TV show “I Love Lucy” was a classic comedy with some iconic moments. Some may recall the infamous chocolate factory scene where Lucy and her best friend Ethel are tasked to deal with packaging chocolates on a conveyor belt. In that scene, you can see that the way Lucy and Ethel deal with their work is the EXACT way today’s knowledge workers try to deal with their work. And Lucy’s manager’s reaction is EXACTLY what happens in many organizations today. Not much in traditional work has changed in 50 years. However, the mindset of business agility fixes this problem.

When you want to make your organization more effective and efficient, you have a variety of choices — and your choice often depends on what causes you to want to improve.

Often, the impetus to “improve” is a company’s reaction to market conditions, a response to competitors, or a drop in revenue. The executive’s knee-jerk response is to cut staffing and stop spending. But this sort of thinking is short-term and over-simplifies the complexity of being an effective company with sustainable capabilities. The reality is that an easy answer is often not always the right answer.

In economic downturns, cutting staff reduces your company’s knowledge. This creates worse problems that exponentially degenerate an organization’s capabilities.

Advanced strategists take these times to consider how the organization can leverage these conditions and take advantage of these opportunities to leap-frog the competition. And they do this by taking steps FIRST to optimize system flow. As we learned from Toyota, applying human ingenuity to problems is the most efficient and effective way to increase company value — and can be a fully integrated and sustainable competitive advantage as it did when it flipped one of the world’s worst automotive plants into one of the best in the world.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “wait, I’m not in manufacturing — what processes do I have, and how can I make them more efficient?” Don’t worry. You can view most activities in your organization as processes, and it’s relatively straightforward to use a technique known as value stream mapping to examine those processes to make them more efficient.

Value Stream Mapping

What is Value Stream Mapping?

Value stream mapping is a technique that allows you to visualize, analyze and improve all the steps in a work process. If you feel there is potential waste in your system, Value Stream Mapping will be the first way to sniff out the problem. Moreover, this approach helps people identify and align on how your process REALLY works. There is no more hiding the secret processes that lurk in the shadows. You might be surprised how little people know about how things really work in your shop, especially the executives.

The Value Stream Mapping technique results in a visual workflow that includes:

  • The steps in your process (yes… even decisions, reviews, approvals)
  • Who performs each step
  • How long each step takes (also known as the takt time)
  • How much time lapses in between steps (also known as wait time)
  • How much time it takes from a customer request to actual delivery (lead time)

A value stream is all the activities that occur between a request and the result where the requestor receives value. The value stream includes steps that add value and those that do not.

When you understand the value stream for a process, you can identify ways to accelerate the process by removing waste and smoothing the flow of work through that process.

How to map your value stream

Value stream mapping is one of those techniques where the act of creating the map is as valuable as, if not more valuable than, the result. It’s best to collaboratively develop your value stream map to get the most value out of the exercise.

Here are a common set of steps for collaborative value stream mapping.

  1. Identify the value stream you’re going to map and where it starts and stops. Clearly identifying starting and stopping points ensures that you’re mapping a value stream that’s significant enough to provide value but that you’re not trying to map your organization’s entire business process.

  2. Gather a cross-functional group together. Keep the group small — less than 10 people — so you can easily facilitate discussions, but include all the key perspectives. You want people actively involved in the value stream so you can identify what actually happens, not what is supposed to happen.

  3. Map out the current process. If everyone is in the same room, use a whiteboard and sticky notes. If you’re working remotely, use a visual collaboration tool such as Mural or Miro to sketch out the steps in your process and the flow from one step to the next. Identify the steps in the current process as they actually happen, not what people think happens.

  4. Collect data in the process. Determine who (as in what roles) performs each step, how long each step usually takes, and how much delay occurs in between each step. Ideally, you may have collected this data before the discussion, but you may have to go out and collect some data by observing the actual process.

  5. Identify opportunities for improvement. Identify the waste in your process that makes the flow of work through the process bumpy and less efficient. Examples of waste could include: Unnecessary steps. Multiple handoffs (especially from person a to person b, and then back to person a). Long delays between steps. Overload of the system or parts of the system (including people). (Note where that waste occurs and identify ways to eliminate it.)

  6. Map a future state. Create a map of what the value stream could look like if you addressed the wastes you identified in the previous step. As you put your future state together, you may identify additional opportunities for improvement.

  7. Determine next steps. Identify the actions you will take to remove the waste you identified, which will get you closer to the future state. Decide when you’ll get the group back together to review the results.

Value stream mapping is helpful for all kinds of processes

Although value stream mapping originated from lean manufacturing, it is a powerful tool you can use to analyze many processes, including several knowledge work business processes.

It’s a little-known fact, but FBI agents use a similar technique to identify liars. If someone tells a story and you want to identify accuracy or inconsistencies, have them tell the story backward. People who know a true story can recite a story both forwards and back with great clarity and detail. However, when there are inaccuracies or gaps, these become clear when running through a series of events in reverse. Value Stream Mapping helps your team identify similar gaps by forcing itself to step through its system backward. It’s one of the best ways to discover what REALLY happens in your processes.

Map your value streams before you have to

If there is anything that you need to do when you need to cut costs during turbulent times, map out your value stream. Value stream mapping is a great tool to explore your processes, make them more efficient, and create smooth operational flow. Not only will you find ways to get more efficient, but you will also find a sustainable, impactful approach to discovering how to get more competitive with factors that are entirely under your control.

So don’t wait for uncertain times or a downturn to map your value streams and reduce waste from your processes. If you can smooth the operational flow through your processes in good times, you’ll be in a position to exploit growth opportunities without having to scale rapidly.

It’s never too late to explore your processes and remove waste. At Hyperdrive, we’re experts in helping organizations work through their processes, eliminate waste, and smooth operational flow. Contact us to find out how we can help you.

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