To Value Stream Map or Not to Value Stream Map a Service Process?

Value stream mapping and Lean implementation in the service business have somehow become synonymous. I have observed service organizations embarking on Lean implementation to invariably use value stream mapping. It is paradoxical that organizations using "value stream maps" often see these maps as a sign of their organizations’ Lean implementation and not necessarily as the tool to show the results that the Lean intervention should deliver. During my visits to service organizations that have implemented Lean, the first thing these organizations show me are their value stream maps. What surprises me is that the tool is used even when it is not necessary. Corporate walls are mindlessly getting pasted with value stream maps, which are often static documents for visitors to see and compliment service organizations’ Lean endeavors.

I do not blame organizations for this faux-pas. Lean as a concept is new to many service companies. They hire individuals, who in their enthusiasm to show progress, make teams do value stream mapping even if it is not required. Somehow, value stream maps are being used for obvious wastes, which can get identified by a value-contribution analysis (as discussed in my earlier column).

Be Careful with Value Stream Mapping

For God’s sake, my observations above should not be taken as my being anti-value stream mapping! Value stream mapping is a great tool and probably the best one that I have come across to unfurl hidden wastes in processes. However, we need to be careful because of the following reasons:

  • Value stream mapping is a cumbersome exercise and requires investment of much time and resources.
  • Wastes in service processes can often be identified by doing a detailed value added/non-value added analysis.
  • Understanding the nuances of value stream mapping is critical before they start getting used by teams. It has many things to offer and just not waste identification. Ask a service Lean expert and he will tell you.

Remember, using the value stream mapping in the right context is critical. The worst thing that could happen if value stream mapping is used in the wrong context is an unproductive and wasteful approach while Leaning a process. Unfortunately this is often not seen by organizations that are dependent on consultants/individuals who have yet honed in the whys and hows of Lean tools.

Defining Value Stream, Value Stream Mapping, and Value Stream Map

Before I delve on the use of value stream mapping in a service business, for the un-initiated let me explain the terms value stream, value stream mapping and value stream map.

I am mentioning the definitions as mentioned in Lean Lexicon (edited by Chet Marcwinski et al, Jan 2003) and their service interpretation:

Value Stream

Definition as per Lean Lexicon (Jan 2003, LEI) A Services Perspective
All of the actions, both value creating and non-value creating, required to bring a product from concept to launch and from order to delivery. All activities (both value adding and non- value adding) that are required for carrying out a service business (of a product family). Within the value stream there are core processes which work in tandem to achieve the strategic business objectives.

Value Stream Mapping/Map

Definition as per Lean Lexicon (Jan 2003, LEI) A Services Perspective
A simple diagram of every step involved in the material and information flows needed to bring a product from order to delivery. Value Stream Mapping is a visual tool used to identify wastes in processes. It includes movement of materials and information flow and also how resources, such as people, within the system get used in the process. The final diagram is called a Value Stream Map.

When You Should Use Value Stream Mapping

My intention in this column is not to tell you how to do value stream mapping but to share with you when it should be used. I will talk about the how’s of value stream mapping at a later date.

So when should you use value stream mapping? While the list can be large, the following is a list of major reasons when value stream mapping should be used in a services business:

  • When the process is large and simple value contribution analysis will not throw up the opportunities for improvement
  • When you are keen on improving the productivity of a large number of people scattered across locations and are keen on knowing their utilization/load distribution
  • When you want improve an end-to-end process
  • When you want to know the various inventories that get piled up in a process
  • When you are keen on identifying the opportunities for optimization in a process
  • When the process is complex and cuts across geographies involving multiple stakeholders
  • When you want to know the inherent complexities of a process
  • When you want to know the various IT systems that are used in the process
  • When you are keen on knowing the effectiveness of various channels that are used for serving the customer
  • When embarking on a Lean journey and there is a need to find out the Lean opportunities in all your core processes
  • When you want to show visually the health of your processes to the CEO and other top management
  • When you want to do a strategic—review of all your processes

In all other cases, I would recommend that you ascertain the value-contribution of the processes. Use value stream mapping as a strategic tool and do not squander its power on tactical work. For all tactical work I can guarantee a good value contribution analysis will get you good results.

Value Stream Mapping Requires Mastery Over Time

Let me caution you that value stream mapping is not an easy tool, and one masters it over a period of time. In service contexts, sometimes it can be quite arduous and requires a good understanding of business processes and their complexities.


Lean LexiconA Graphical Glossary for Lean Thinkers, Chet Marchwinski and John Shook, The Lean Enterprise Institute, USA, 2003.