Putting People on the Value Stream Map

(This is the first of several guest postings by Carlos Venegas, author of Flow in the Office: Implementing and Sustaining Lean Improvements. He is a principal in Straus Forest and can be reached at Carlos@StrausForest.com.)

I remember hearing an old interview of Julia Child--the famous chef and author. The interviewer asked her if she ever modified a recipe that she was cooking for the first time. Her answer surprised me. She said that she never modified the recipe the first time she cooked it; if she did, she would not be able to tell if it was a good recipe.

That interview came back to me when I first began learning about implementing lean. I carefully followed my sensei's instructions. I did things "by the book." That experience taught me this: Lean is an excellent recipe for not just process improvement, but for employee involvement and morale, too.

Some time ago, I began bringing Lean into the office environment. At that time the question was, "will Lean work in the office environment?" Time and experience has taught us that the short answer to that question is a resounding "Yes, but…."

First the "yes" part. Yes, the principles and tools of lean can be applied in the office. Lean is, among other things, well suited for process improvement. Offices have processes, therefore lean can work in offices.

Now the "but…" part. The language of the factory does not always translate into the language of the office. I ran into that complication when I wrote Flow in the Office: Implementing and Sustaining Lean Improvements. Here's an example:

When I was a lean neophyte, I went on a learning pilgrimage to Japan. On a tour through a factory in Japan, a sensei told me there are seven flows: people, information, raw materials, work-in-progress, completed products, engineering, and tooling. Those flows make obvious sense in a factory environment, but not so much in an office environment. Sure, it makes sense when you look at the flow of paperwork and people, but what about the flow of ideas, decisions, influence, or electrons--things that are not so visible--or even invisible? That's the office environment where the language of the factory does not make sense. Yet, we know that flow still exists in office processes.

My challenge was to articulate my experience in a new language. Hence, the book Flow in the Office.

Since completing the book, I've taken on a new challenge: if people are such an important part of a business process, why are people processes not reflected in some way on the value stream map?

My colleague, Ann Dorgan, and I have come up with one answer to that question. We led a client in value stream mapping their purchasing and accounts payable process. In my next two posts, I'll show you how we "put people on their map."