The Human Side of Value Stream Mapping

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When you think of value stream transformation, what are the most common desired outcomes that come to mind? Shorter lead times? Higher quality? Reduced expenses? Expansive thinkers often go beyond these classic performance indicators and aim for improvements such as shorter-to-market time for new products, greater market share, smoother acquisitions, and less painful annual budgeting cycles. These are all noble pursuits that can be accomplished more easily through the proven practice of value stream mapping. However, in our experience, the deepest transformational benefits from well-executed value stream mapping activities are often people-based.

In a recent interview with Ron Pereira of Gemba Academy, I shared a common outcome of value stream mapping efforts: organizational healing.

Take a listen:

In my view, improvement and organizational transformation are deeply psychological. Looking exclusively for tangible results ignores the reality that people are psychological beings. Being aware of and playing into human psychology can be tremendously healing—for both the individuals involved and the organization-at-large.

There are two key conditions value stream mapping helps create that are wickedly effective in achieving quantifiable performance improvement and are also humanistic at their core:

1. Leadership Alignment

The word “alignment” has been bandied about so much that it has achieved buzzword status. Buzzword or not, leadership alignment is critical for achieving outstanding performance. And it’s often missing.

planesIn our initial work with leadership teams, they’ll often declare, “Of course we’re aligned!” But when we listen to conversations, observe body language, and learn how an organization solves problems, we often see moderate to high degrees of leadership misalignment over issues that are fundamental to an organization’s success. Appearing to play well in the sandbox with one’s peers is not a valid indicator of what’s going on psychologically. And, what’s going on psychologically in every leader’s head is directly tied to how well the organization will perform.

Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes the organization should offer a new service or move into a new geographic area, while another believes the organization should focus on fundamentals. Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that a certain type of work belongs in his/her part of the organization and another leader believes it belongs elsewhere. Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that one part of the organization is under-performing, while another leader doesn’t see it.

Value stream mapping helps a leadership team align around organizational purpose, strategic direction, annual business goals, and improvement priorities. It provides a powerful forum for leaders to gain clarity, focus, consensus, and commitment.

Done well, value stream mapping shines a light into cobwebbed corners of an organization and allows them to be cleared. It surfaces the truth—unequivocally and unapologetically. It reveals the cracks in a company’s operation, the financial model it uses, how it sells its goods or services, and how it treats its suppliers, customers, and employees. It uses facts to challenge leadership biases and misperceptions. But it also creates a safe haven for the crucial conversations that need to occur so that the organization can heal itself and accelerate its journey to excellence.

With a newfound understanding of reality, leadership teams typically come together in profound ways. (It also surfaces very clearly when a leader will remain misaligned and needs to find a new home!) With a shared commitment for the future state and the improvement priorities needed to get there, they morph into a cohesive, collaborative whole that spreads to the frontlines and fuels the transformation process.

2. Easier Work

The second outcome that speaks to the human side of value stream mapping is around the work itself. Respect for people is a core tenet of Lean management and goes far beyond how one is treated in meetings, in hallways, and in the cafeteria. In fact, the greatest measure of how much respect for people is present in an organization is the degree to which each individual can succeed in doing his/her work and fully utilize his/her knowledge, skills, aptitude for learning, and creative potential (KSAC).

The Karen Martin Group 2Unfortunately, in many organizations, people are forced to work with kludgy work systems and processes that make it impossible to be successful, no matter how well-intended and highly skilled one is.

To make matters worse, people are often blamed for problems instead of first looking at the systems and processes that created the environment for the problems to occur.

Gathering a leadership team together to understand the current state of how value flows (or doesn’t flow) to customers creates a powerful venue for seeing how difficult it can be for staff to be successful. After the current state discovery process, many leaders have admitted that they were embarrassed by what they learned. But while developing a deep understanding of the current state can be sobering, it provides the leadership insight needed to launch true organizational transformation.

The process of streamlining workflows, closing gaps, correcting disconnects, and reducing redundancy and rework provides not only greater value for external customers, but a more humanistic and respectful work environment for the people who deliver that value.

Value stream mapping is far more than a tool to achieve quantifiable business performance improvement. It’s a management practice that helps build an appetite for surfacing the truth, solving problems, resolving complacency, and designing a better tomorrow. It helps an organization realize its full potential. And, done well, it deepens understanding, heals relationships, and brings a human side to business.

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Eliminate the Need for Heroics

Four Business Superheroes

Any leader or skilled improvement professional knows that metrics are necessary to define what success looks like, measure progress toward a defined target, and assess performance against defined standards. Metrics also serve as a powerful way to demonstrate improvement success to people who might otherwise roll their eyes.

Used properly, relevant metrics provide the much-needed fuel for better decisions, better problem solving, and better improvement. Unfortunately, all too often, organizations operate with a “empty tank” with few, if any, metrics that matter. Data is one thing; meaningful information is quite another.

But as powerful as metrics can be, there are many noble improvement goals for which measuring success is difficult or impossible. Some of the greatest minds recognized this reality.

Consider the saying that’s been attributed to both Albert Einstein and William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that’s counted counts.” (“Matters” is sometimes used in lieu of “counts” and “measured” is sometimes used in lieu of “counted.”)

W. Edwards Deming echoed this maxim in Out of the Crisis:

“One can not be successful on visible figures alone. Now of course, visible figures are important. There is payroll to meet, vendors to pay, taxes to pay; amortization, pension funds, and contingency funds to meet. But he that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures. Actually, the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” (p. 121; he credits the last statement to statistician Lloyd S. Nelson)

In The Outstanding Organization I defined four behaviors that I have found provide the necessary foundation (and are often lacking) for achieving outstanding business performance: clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement.


Without those behaviors firmly in place, organizations produce varying degrees of self-inflicted chaos. The most common and destructive type of chaos is more commonly referred to “fire fighting.” In many organizations, fire fighting has become such a normal behavior that, like a fish in water, they don’t even realize that they’ve habituated chaos into their daily operations.

In the most extreme cases, organizations encourage fire fighting because they habitually reward the heroine or hero who saves the day and they do not reward the people working to prevent chaos. After all, chaos is exciting! It gets our juices flowing! But it’s all too easy to become an adrenaline junkie. Like any addiction, being hooked on adrenaline will bring you down.

How does this relate to measurement? Improvement is defined as reducing (or closing) the gap between a defined current state and a target condition you’re aiming to achieve. If your organization is hooked on fire fighting, your target condition is to reduce (ideally, eliminate) the need for fire fighting. After you identify the root causes for fire-fighting (there will be several) and test, adjust, and implement the countermeasures that will address the “vital few” root causes that are causing the bulk of the pain, it’s time to measure your success. How do you know if you’ve successfully reduced or closed a nebulous gap?

One way to quantify a reduction in chaos is to conduct brief employee surveys. Another is to simply get anecdotal feedback to the question: “Does it feel better?”

Yes. “Does it feel better?” is a legitimate question.

While I’ve often admonished improvement teams, “It can’t just feel better. It needs to be measurably better,” it’s also true that there are a some wildly important improvements that may be tougher to measure, but are simply the right thing to do. You may not be able to draw a direct cause-and-effect correlation between chaos reduction and an increase in profit, market share, or employee engagement, but reducing the need for heroics remains a noble goal.

Work shouldn’t require heroics to get it done and get it done well. Outstanding organizations continuously strive to create work environments where successful performance isn’t dependent on heroics. Where people can be proud of the deliverables they create versus rushing through everything and delivering suboptimal output. Where leaders sleep at night versus wondering if deadlines will be met. Where customers don’t have to regularly call the customer service center because… well, there’s no need to. Where stress levels are in check and employee joy is palpable.  Being proud, reduced stress, sleeping, joy… they may not be easy to measure, but….

Don’t you want to be one of those organizations?

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Leadership: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Heart on computer keyboard

In 2012, I spoke at the Lean HR Summit, which is one of the many excellent annual Summits delivered by Lean Frontiers. I had heard about David Veech‘s work (@DavidVeech) at Ohio State and was eager to hear him speak. So I settled into my chair, ready to hear David’s take on the interplay between Lean principles and HR practices. But that’s not what he talked about—at least not explicitly. What David talked about was love. Come again? Love? In business?

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, one of W. Edwards Deming’s greatest contributions to business management is #8 of his 14 Points for Management: Drive out fear. And I’ve understood for quite some time now that all of our feelings and behaviors can be distilled down to two primal human emotions: love and fear. So to drive out fear, we have to replace it with love. Makes sense.

David went on to deliver one of the most compelling keynotes I’ve heard and his words deepened the quest I’ve been on to uncover the keys to consistent, outstanding business performance. One thing that’s clear is that love and fear play a critical role. Likely THE most critical role. We have to build cultures of love in order to have cultures devoid of fear.

Uncomfortable with the words love and business in the sentence? Simon Sinek’s most recent TED Talk is arguably his best yet and is laced with Lean leadership principles, even though he never mentions the word Lean. What he does mention is love as a precondition to establishing a culture of trust and cooperation, which leads to significant business results. This 12-minute talk packs a powerful punch.

Similar to a post I penned last week for Switch and Shift and I address in The Outstanding Organization, Sinek talks about the need to create the environment that enables people to perform at their best.

Sinek says it best:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Take a look and then read on (If you’re pressed for time, I’ve listed some of Sinek’s key points at the end of this post):

In The Outstanding Organization (TOO), I talk about the establishing a work environment that fosters “reciprocal nourishment,” a term I learned from clinical sociologist Kathryn Goldman Schuyler. While writing TOO, I never even thought the word love. I do now.

In last week’s webinar about Respect for People: The Lean Way, I address the need to build work environments that draw on and are highly respectful of the full set of knowledge, skills, aptitude and creativity (KSAC) each employee brings to a job. In doing so, business performance soars. This webinar was the first time I mentioned the word “love” and “business” in the same sentence (at 6:00). It felt very right.

I believe we’re on the cusp of a major transformation in business and the way leaders lead. Command-and-control never worked and it especially doesn’t work with Millennials. One of my favorite little books released in the past two years is Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni. People are starved for feedback, learning, and development. They are not merely widgets to do a company’s bidding. When companies create environments where love and respect for humanity drives all decisions and behavior, they become unstoppable.

Spread the word. Say the word. Love. When it comes to achieving outstanding business performance, love’s got a LOT to do with it.

Here are some of my favorite Sinek-isms from his TED Talk:

“In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

Wow. Jarring statement, but it’s often true. Let’s change that. Another good one:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Indeed. In environments where people don’t feel safe, trust and cooperation is non-existent and the truth about anything can become unknowable. How ’bout this pearl:

“Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.”

Enough said.

And about layoffs, a key Lean principle. Pay particular attention to the story about Bob Chapman (8:26), a deeply-respected Lean leader who believes in “heart counts” instead of  “head counts”:

“Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”

And finally:

“If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things. And more importantly, others have that capacity too.”

(Hat tip to Jean Cunningham for mentioning Sinek’s TED Talk in her May newsletter.)

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