Review of Value Stream Mapping by Karen Martin & Mike Osterling

There have been several watershed moments in the development of Western consciousness and practice of Lean management over the past 25 years. Perhaps first was the arrival of Masaaki Imai, Chihiro Nakao and Yoshiki Iwata in Connecticut in 1988 to deliver the first detailed training on TPS and kaizen. This was followed by hands-on workshops which opened the eyes of leaders at Danaher and other companies to the power of what was not yet called Lean at that time.

Another watershed moment was the publication of Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones in 1996, documenting the application of these ideas across industries in Japan and beyond, catapulting the term Lean into Western business consciousness.

When value stream mapping (VSM) became the keystone Lean diagnostic and visualization tool 15 years ago, it lifted many organizations out of suboptimized, tool-focused implementations into increasingly more customer-driven, end-to-end improvements. The book that introduced “material and information flow mapping” from Toyota into the Lean lexicon was Learning to See by John Shook and Mike Rother.

Since then there have been many books that have attempted to bring a customer-pull-and-flow-oriented understanding to the analysis and design of business processes, often with practice-based descriptions of value stream mapping and transformation within unique business environments. A few examples include Perfecting Patient Journeys for VSM in healthcare, Kaizen in Logistics and Supply Chains for VSM in manufacturing and distribution, The Complete Lean Enterprise for VSM in office and administration and Value Stream Mapping for Lean Development which is self-explanatory.

How does Value Stream Mapping by Karen Martin & Mike Osterling differ from other books on the subject? This book does not focus on the mechanics of value stream mapping itself, but rather the physical, social and logistical preparation around mapping a value stream, to the degree which “Managing Value Stream Mapping” may have been a more accurate, though less marketing-friendly title. For the expert in value stream mapping, this book provides useful advice on how to embed VSM within the management of an overall change effort. For an experienced change leader without background in VSM, this book provides a good overview of its what and why. For the leader who is new to the above, the book provides guideposts for empowering the rest of the organization to take a stab at value stream mapping.

There are very few diagrams of value stream maps for the first 80 pages of the book, which is unusual for a book about a visual tool. However the six examples of current and future state value stream maps included in the Appendices, drawn from the authors’ real experience in across business environments as various as Outpatient Imaging Services, Purchasing, Repair Services, Shelving Systems and Software Development, are a valuable addition to the literature, and compensate for this. Much of the “how” in this book surrounds activities peripheral but important to the mapping itself, such as setting the stage, laying the groundwork, defining the charter, forming the team, “socializing” the charter, and similarly organizing to implement the transformation plan after mapping. For the actual mapping activity itself, useful explanation is provided on conducting value stream walks, filling out data boxes and asking probing questions about the current and future state.

One of the benefits of value stream mapping the authors list is that VSM is a “holistic systems-thinking methodology”. This is to take nothing away from the VSM methodology in helping move organizations in the direction of systems thinking, but it is far from being a holistic methodology for that. A value stream map is simply a visualization tool designed to reveal the effectiveness of an operation involving material and information flow. Value stream mapping does provide a wide-angle view, and is based on the belief that long-term thinking and a more holistic view leads to better decisions and actions. However material and information flow mapping a.k.a. VSM has been designed and optimized for just that – mapping the flow of material and information. This is rarely if ever the entire system. There are many aspects of an enterprise’s success which a value stream is not designed to map or expose, such as market segmentation, product strategy, organization structure, cultural assumptions and behaviors, impact of changes in technological, social or regulatory environment on the business. The authors do recognize the assumption and the need to challenge the notions that that the “right work” is being done and that the goods and services produced are wanted in the first place. All of this and more must be within the scope of a long-term, ongoing lean transformation if we want to avoid using better tools but ultimately suboptimizing our improvement efforts.

Related to this point, while the authors answer the question, “Where should you begin?” with value stream mapping early in the book, acknowledging that it depends on the maturity of the organization, and “Assuming your organization is ready to benefit” from the power of value stream mapping, no guidelines are provided for when value stream mapping should not be done, when an organization is not ready to benefit or when another tool and/or intervention is more appropriate. Depending on what type of business process is being analyzed, and in what level of detail, other visualization tools such as process mapping, SIPOC or the business model canvas can be more appropriate. All of the authors’ discussion around change management and project management still apply, but the issue of whether VSM is always the best or only tool is not explored sufficiently in the book to back up the claim that it is a holistic systems-thinking methodology.

What gap closure or readiness activities may be needed? What are alternate methods for understanding how work is done and how to improve? Value stream mapping helps to diagnose and prescribe treatment; what actions prior to value stream mapping lead to the correct diagnosis and prescription of value stream mapping as the next step? Additional discussion on this topic would be valuable but perhaps beyond the scope of this book.

Many will gain a lot from simply following the prescription for VSM in this and other books, understanding the current situation, building consensus around an action plan, and learning by doing. For the vast majority of readers such questions may be esoteric. I share the desire of the authors to clarify misunderstandings about value stream mapping, so that more people may safely enjoy its benefits.

What excites me about this book is that I think it will turn many more people on to value stream mapping who may not have appreciated it before. I hope it gives leaders, be they of organizations or improvement projects, the courage and confidence to know that there is a way to blaze a path through the confusion, frustration and waste towards better clarity and alignment of improvement efforts.


  1. Pete Abilla

    February 3, 2014 - 1:36 pm

    Thanks for the review, Jon.
    I feel that Karen is overstating Value Stream Mapping all-together, and making it seem way bigger and more important than it really is.
    At Toyota, as you know, the activity is called information and material flow mapping. The word “value stream mapping” is a foreign term at Toyota.
    It’s literally a tool for a very specific purpose. It’s not a holistic, all-encompassing methodology. I’m afraid that’s making VSM way more than it really is.
    Yes, VSM is helpful. Holistic methodology? Not so much.

  2. Nelson S de Lazaro

    March 10, 2014 - 2:43 am

    I would like to identify in this site, a reference about Lean indicators practice in Industry, in four diferent aspects : People – Safety,Ergonomic,Satisfaction; Quality-Defects/Units, Non conformance 1st pass / Unit, Scrap(Value)/ Units, Scrap(Qty)/ Unit; Velocity – Throuput(Lead Time or Total Cycle Time)/ Unit, Cost – Manpower (Direct and Indirect)/ Unit, Inventory / Unit, Inventory, etc. Is it possible?

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