The Case Against Value Stream Mapping

My blog is called Systems Thinking, Lean and Kanban. With the word Lean in the title, and being an active part of the Lean and Kanban community, what am I doing posting an article called The Case Against Value Stream Mapping? Has my recent 22 hour flight to Australia had an affect on my brain?

I have been trained in VSM, have used it, and have found it of value. Its a wonderful tool for helping teams in setting up their Kanban boards; mapping their current Value Stream onto the columns on a board. Alan Shalloway has a great animation of this in action. I also encourage Kanban software tool vendors to have a VSM view in their tool, which will show average delay and process times for a Kanban workflow. In addition when I present at conferences, I reference the usage and results of using VSM in one of my case studies at Lonely Planet. So why this post?

Well, its all to do with how the Value Stream Map is used once it has been created. Lets explore how we learn and how to create change.

Action Science

Chris Argyris, an American business theorist, developed a way of explaining behaviour called Action Science.

In Action Science he describes two simultaneous mental models that make it difficult to create change. The first is our Espoused Theory, which describes the model we say we use to describe how we act (or how we would like others to think we act). The second is our Theory in Use, which is the one we actually use to make decisions.
Mental Models are a way to describe a person’s intuitive perception of the world around them. How we act on that world, our decision rules, are based on our mental models. People always behave consistently with their mental models (theory-in-use) even though they often do not act in accordance with what they say (espoused theory). Within the workplace, we hold generalized beliefs about “what is valued in this organization” and “how things get done around here”. We also hold more specific beliefs about events and people. These beliefs are important because they influence and constrain what we do and don’t do in the workplace.

Single Loop vs Double Loop Learning

Argyris also describes two types of learning. Single-loop learning describes how people learn to adjust their actions in response to natural feedback on the success of those actions in achieving a desired result. They liken this style of learning to a thermostat that adjusts the degree of heating or cooling depending on the temperature of the room. In single loop learning, we may change our decisions, but we leave our underlying mental models and decision rules unchanged. This type of learning solves problems but ignores the question of why the problem arose in the first place (using the previous thermostat example; why is the temperature in the room changing?).

In double-loop learning, we change our underlying mental models and decision rules, which in turn produces new results. Double loop learning uses feedback from past actions to question assumptions underlying current views. Double-loop learning requires not only adjusting one’s actions, but also surfacing, challenging and adjusting the governing variables that are usually taken for granted i.e. our beliefs or “mental maps of reality”.

Double-loop learning adds a powerful dimension to previous experiential learning cycles. In previous models, learning was achieved through reflection on the success (or failure) of your actions. However, in the double-loop model, learning is realized through reflection on the validity and usefulness of your beliefs.

Model I-Inhibiting Double Loop Learning

Argyris tells us that when human beings deal with issues that are embarrassing or threatening, their reasoning and actions conform to a model called Model I. Model I behaviour results in defensive behaviours that block exploring underlying mental models and the resulting maturity that arises. Trying to make change in Model I is difficult because you are dealing with their Espoused Theory. It is neither rewarding nor safe for a person to explore or actually change their mental models and decision rules, so there is a wide gap between their Espoused Theory and their Theory in Use.

Model II-Encouraging Double Loop Learning

Argyris describes a much more productive model that he calls Model II. In Model II,  it is safe and rewarding to explore underlying mental models and decision rules. The significant features of Model II include the ability to call upon good quality data and to make inferences. It looks to include the views and experiences of participants rather than seeking to impose a view upon the situation. Theories should be made explicit and tested, positions should be reasoned and open to exploration by others.

The Problem with Value Stream Mapping

With the above in mind, what level of learning will a leader experience when shown a Value Stream Map? Its unlikely they will experience double loop learning. Its more likely that when presented with the map, containing various delay times and process times, that may prove embarrassing or threatening, they will use their current mental models i.e. model 1, and look to blame the workers or blame their managers.

If you have ever watched the ‘Back to the floor’ type TV programmes you will know the problem these kinds of things create, i.e. The boss hears something shocking, goes back into the management factory and issues edicts that make things worse not better. The problem, as always, is two fold. Firstly the boss lacks perspective to understand that a systemic change is required (“This problem has been created by me!”) and secondly is let down by the methods they have learned about how to act.

Top management issuing orders, memos and directives alone is insufficient to change employees’ behaviour. Single-loop learning often leads to organisational malaise resulting in symptoms such as defensiveness, cynicism, hopelessness, evasion, distancing, blaming, and rivalry.  There is often a large gap between what leaders publicly “espouse” and the real beliefs that guide their actions. In order to effectively come to grips with new situations, the espoused theories need to be aligned with the theories in use.

Double-loop learning techniques help the organisation members learn together and the organisation change. To do this we need to reveal how the work currently works. We need to reveal the thinking behind the current work design. Value Stream Mapping lists each delay and process time in a flow. It identifies current state and future state and plans for implementation. Waste is identified for reduction. But as John Seddon points out

Managers think that cost is in activity, whereas the counter intuitive truth is that cost is in flow.

Process Mapping

An alternative to Value Stream Maps is Process Mapping. We don’t map the process in a room with brown paper and sticky notes. We don’t ask the managers as they are often too removed from the work to know what is actually going on. We don’t send in a Business Analyst from IT, we don’t talk to proxy customers or talk to a spokesperson for an area. We don’t talk to a few token “doers”. Instead we go into where the work is occurring, with a small team comprised of peers of those who do the work. Why peers? workers tend to tell their colleagues the truth about what’s really going on at work. We also take a leader with the team going into the work to perform the mapping.

As John Seddon states

Studying work as systems reveals counter intuitive truths, challenges to convention, that are more easily understood and accepted if someone sees them for themselves, not if they are told. People need to unlearn and relearn.

Mapping is important because it helps staff to change their perspective on the work.
Firstly it helps them to unlearn what they think is going on in the work. Secondly it helps them to relearn how the work should be designed from the customers’ point of view.
In this regard, process mapping is not simply a means to an end. It is part of the change process.

I will post the mechanics of Process Mapping in a future post, but in conclusion, I suggest it would be more likely for effective change to occur if we go into the work to get knowledge of what is really happening in the work, together with a leader who will experience the same learning as a team and will have the authority to make changes to improve. How we document the process, say in a VSM, is less relevant than the learning acquired.


Reading Recommendations

Below I have posted some recommended reading material for those interested in learning more about Systems Thinking.

Booklist and links below

Out of the Crisis – W. Edwards Deming

Workplace Management – Taiichi Ohno

Freedom From Command and Control – John Seddon

Moon Shots For Management – Gary Hemel

Discussing the Undiscussable – William R Noonan

One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees – Fredrick Herzberg

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink

Understanding Variation: The Key to Managing Chaos – Donald Wheeler

Leading Lean Software Development – Mary and Tom Poppendieck

The Four Steps to the Epiphany – Steve Blank

The Leaders Handbook – Peter R Scholtes

Systems Thinking, Cultural Change is Free

I have really been inspired by John Seddon’s Cultural Change is Free video (skip the first 5 minutes intro/waffle).

Here are the key points I took from his talk (which you may find useful if you dont have the time to watch the whole talk):

When asked how much work we have coming in, how many people we have, and how long it takes – the normal answer is to set targets. Morale goes down having to work to arbitrary targets.

If you are incentivised to sell only high value items then what happens to the majority of low value work? It gets ignored. When you incentivise behaviour you get less of the work you want, people get focused on the incentive not on doing the work.

You need to understand type and frequency of demand in customer terms; What is the customer trying to pull from your system?

  • Value demand – thats why we are here
  • Failure demand – failure to do something or do something right for the customer

Failure demand often runs over 50% of the system e.g. “you sent me a blue one and I wanted a green one” “it didnt fit” “it doesnt work”

Study demand in customer terms until you predict demand going forward. A lot of demand is predictable. Its only the predictable failure demand that you can turn off. Turning off failure demand is a massive economic lever. Deming says things will always go wrong, you need to find out what goes wrong predictably. Only the predictable is preventable. The only way to turn off predictable failure demand is to redesign the service.

Obsession with costs is the wrong obsession. If you manage costs your costs go up.

Variation is in the work, not in the workforce.

Working on people only tackles 5% working on the system tackles the other 95%

Study the work, study the causes of variation, what are the causes; the system is 95% of the answer. Take the big ones and then go to work on changing them, you will then see dramatic improvements. For example

  • Is the worker trained on what the customer wants?
  • Has the management studied demand?
  • Are procedures working?
  • Is the IT system working?
  • Have the people in marketing sent something to the customer that others arent aware of?

Train your workers on high frequency value demand; stuff we get a lot of. They will get demand they are not trained for, they need to recognise this, when it happens they pull support from a specialist or their manager, the work stays with them and they work with the manager or specialist to complete it. The rate of learning for the worker becomes very fast.

Inevitably some of the work has to go elsewhere, so we need to concentrate on flow. Does the person about to hand off work understand what “clean” looks like to the person receiving it in the flow? They visit the person who will receive it and ask “what do you do with it” “what do you need from me for it to be clean when it arrives?” If everyone does this through the value chain you see vast improvements and far less rework.

You design the system to see the waste, when it is removed the system improves. When you improve the design to handle demand that hits the front of the system and the flow of work that gets handed off – costs go down by a lot.

If you want someone to do a good job then design a good job to do. The worker has to be responsible and have the means to control their own work. The job of management changes to a co-operative role, working on the system, fixing things outside of the workers control.

Counter intuitive truths

  • Cost is not in activity, cost is in flow
  • Standardisation does not give control, it creates waste
  • Targets and all other abitery measures make your system worse

Systemic relationship between Purpose -> Measures -> Method

When you impose arbitrary measures such as targets into your system you create a defacto purpose which is to meet the targets, and you constrain method.

When you derive your measures from the purpose of the service from the customers point of view, and put those measures in the hands of the people doing the work, you liberate method. Innovation occurs, we are bringing the brain to work, we are using ingenuity; not to survive in the system, but to be engaged and understanding how to improve their work. When you design systems this way people actually work harder and they are less stressed!

There are 3 things every manager needs to know about targets

  1. Targets and all other arbitrary measures always make performance worse
  2. There is no reliable method for setting a target
  3. When you use real measures derived from the purpose of the work from the customers point of view, in the hands of the workers, you achieve a level of improvement you would never have dreamed of setting as a target.

Culture change is free. Change is emergent. When you change the system, the behaviour changes.

The nature of change; we are taught if you want to change something you have to have a plan, set some milestones with some deliverables, and perform cost benefit analysis. Systems thinkers say there is no requirement for a plan, the only plan is get knowledge, change starts by studying the current system.

Follow the value work through the flow, see where they go. There is only 2 types of work going on; the work the customer wants to pull and everything else is waste. Forget the 7 wastes in manufacturing.
You cant get rid of waste until you understand its causes, so you need to understand what is causing the waste; design of you system, targets, IT systems etc

As you start a change by studying the work, you start to learn this mean me too! If you stop doing the wrong thing you stop getting worse. If you want people to innovate the responsibility has to be with them. Ask what measures are you using to understand and improve the work?

Economy comes through flow and not scale, the only way to absorb variety is to use people; to design them into proper jobs in these systems, we need human solutions to these human problems.