Formalism for Forms

By Jon Miller Updated on February 14th, 2022

One thing I’ve been doing a lot lately in my job at Gemba Academy is preparation. Specifically, I’m making sure that we have the graphics, figures, and forms our video editors need to do their job smoothly. The audio portion of the video scripts I create at the speed of typing. The accompanying visuals, on the other hand, are a slow and painstaking process. When we are adding to pre-existing courses or topics, we can often reuse art. When we are introducing new topics or going deeper into the how-to of a topic, creating new visual aids becomes a key process.

I’m learning the importance of clear and detailed instructions. I’m not a graphic designer, so I don’t always know what language to use or what best practices to rely on. The designers aren’t lean experts or even business types. So small assumptions I make about not needing to specify something “obvious” can turn cause errors or rework. Add to that the fact that some people can “hear 1 and understand 10” as the Japanese saying goes, while others prefer to hear 10. It’s an ongoing experiment, but we’re making progress.

Formalism for Forms

As a side effect of all of this work on graphics, I’ve been thinking about the nature of various forms we use to help us along on our lean journey. We may start with an x-matrix to convert long-term business goals into annual objectives and detailed action plans. We use value stream maps to understand our business end-to-end. We look at processes up close with spaghetti diagrams and time observation sheets to identify improvements, and standard work combination tables to visualize the new method. Together these are almost like stepping stones across a river. We could put on our waders and slog through deep, cold, fast-flowing water. Or we can study these forms and how they help us narrow the gap between ignorance and understanding.

What struck me is that the labeling of these various forms is rather sloppy. One person may call something a spaghetti chart, while another a spaghetti diagram. Time observation is done on a form, sheet, or more accurately, a table. Is it a standard work combination sheet or table? A “sheet” is not a useful descriptor. It just tells us that information is presented on paper or another two-dimensional medium. Fair warning: this dive into the accurate terms for the various continuous improvement charts, tables, graphs, and maps may come across as a bit pedantic. We may or may not learn something valuable.

What Are Diagrams?

A diagram is a simplified drawing or schematic representation of a structure or workings of something. The lean library includes the spaghetti diagram, a drawing of the movement of people or product through a space to reveal wasted motion, often resembling a plate of noodles. The material and information flow diagram is what it sounds like, and most people know this as a value stream map. A fishbone diagram is a schematic to show cause and effect relationships.

Diagrams aren’t intended to be an exact, complete, or accurate representation of a thing. Although diagrams can contain data, their main purpose isn’t to present data. A matrix is a type of diagram for showing relationships between two or more sets of things. Diagrams have limitations but are quite versatile.

What Is a Graph?

A graph is a drawing that shows the relationship between variables. A typical graph has two axes at right angles to each other, each axis representing one set of data. On the continuous improvement journey, we rely on the cycle time bar graphs a.k.a. percent loading charts, control charts, scatter plots, and various graphs tracking KPI performance over time. Graphs do one thing well but are very versatile.

What Are Charts?

A chart is often defined as information in the form of a table, graph, or diagram. This definition is unhelpful, as it refers to a set of forms that vary in style and function. A narrower definition would be to limit charts to representations of data. The Pareto chart is a popular one for identifying the 80-20 or few factors with the largest impact. Pie charts (a diagram), bar charts (a graph), yamazumi charts (a hybrid), and radar charts (a diagram?) are all good examples of using geometric shapes to illuminate data. To be accurate, a spaghetti chart is not a proper chart.

What Are Tables?

A table is a set of facts or figures displayed in rows and columns. The equipment selection table is a classic used in TPM. The table of production capacity by process a.k.a process capacity table is a key input to creating standardized work when machinery is involved in the process. The standard work combination table a.k.a. standard work combination sheet, makes use of rows and columns, but is more of a graph. It’s not helpful arguably the world’s most popular table is called a spreadsheet.

What Is a Map?

A map is a diagram representing an area or territory. Typically this consists of sections of our planet such as land or sea, showing natural and manmade features such as rivers, hills, cities, roads, and so forth. It can be a star map, showing the relative locations of stars and planets in the sky. Maps can be more abstract, such as the mind map which attempts to organize our thoughts. The inventory map is a useful way to depict where stock is piling up within a plant or supply chain.

Maps often do include data, such as distance between points, elevation, and so forth. Also, maps aim to be accurate and exact representations, although at a smaller scale. This is an important distinction between maps and diagrams.

Let’s Diagram Our Value Streams

What we call a flow chart or process map is a flow diagram that blends material and information flow. This brings us to our friend the value stream map. This is an innovative diagram of how material and information flow across a chain of processes including consumers, producers, and suppliers. The value stream map draws these as two separate flows and illustrates their relationships. To be accurate, the VSM is not a map. It’s a diagram.

A true value stream “map” would show some or all of the territory surrounding the points in the supply chain which comprise the value stream. For example, if a car factory in Tennessee has parts suppliers in Mexico, China, and Canada, its value stream map would show locations where value is created and how it moves from point to point. Such a map would be rather unwieldy for the purposes of drawing the material and information flow. That’s why we use a diagram and not a map to draw the flow of material and information.

We Call Many Forms by the Wrong Name. So What?

The question of what the proper term is for the spaghetti drawing does not keep many lean thinkers up at night. .I haven’t seen evidence that we’re screwing up standard work because we arrange equipment data on a sheet rather than on a table. We don’t hear of people losing their way because they try to map their value stream, rather than diagram it. But I won’t go as far to say that what we call these forms doesn’t matter. The continuous improvement community gets by without strict formalisms for forms because by nature, forms are visual, many near self-explanatory. Most of the time, we can recreate a table without understanding what a table is or isn’t, or how it compares to a graph, chart, or diagram.

However, it’s my sense that such looseness with what we call things contributes to looseness with how we think, and eventually what we do. Today we decide words don’t matter. Tomorrow, we may decide that the differences these words represent no longer matter. It wouldn’t hurt to reflect now and then on what we call things and why. Even if we don’t learn a lot from this exercise, sometimes it’s good to think deeply about things just for the sake of it.

  1. Erin Chratian

    February 23, 2022 - 1:43 pm

    I think this article highlights an important point that even the little things matter and can lead up to large differences over time. We all learn the difference between all of these forms, yet tables are constantly being called graphs and maps are being called diagrams. At the end of the day, the difference does matter when it comes to analyzing data, and it is good practice to hold ourselves to high standards in everything that we do.

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