Posted by: productivityinc | June 29, 2011

Are We Missing Something?

Value Stream Maps are pretty ubiquitous in Lean implementation nowadays, and I have considerable respect for the work of Mike Rother who originated this mapping approach and introduced it to the wider world in his book ‘Learning to See’ (great title by the way). But there is a ‘but’.


What the current vogue for VSM reminds me of most of all is that the originators of Lean theory (not the originators of the original practices) are by background economists.  Now there is nothing wrong in being an economist or indeed in being an economist studying and writing about manufacturing, but it is just one perspective among many.  Much interesting (and Nobel Prizewinning) work is being done in the field of behavioural economics, which acknowledges that people do not behave as economically rational actors, which brings us back to the problem with the economic perspective on organisational change.

One way of looking at this is to say there are two types of complexity – technical complexity and social or organisational complexity.  Daniel Kim and his colleagues in the systems faculty at MIT have written at length about this, but briefly put, technical complexity is about the number of items and connections in a system (stocks and flows).  If we can identify all the stocks and flows we can build a systems dynamics model which will predict the outcome of changes in the system.  Economic forecasting models tend to be this sort of model.  Social or Organisational Complexity is rather different, and depends on the number of individuals and groups of individuals involved in the system, all of whom may have different ideas, perspectives and experiences which effect how they act within the system, or ‘mess’ as Russell Ackoff describes it.

Organisations combine these two kinds of complexity in what are in a related discipline called socio-technical systems.  So back to my concern with VSM – that it only really deals with the technical complexity of manufacturing operations, not the socio-technical mess.  The biggest challenge is not in mapping the waste and defining an optimum future state, the biggest challenge is implementation which involves gaining everyone’s commitment to enacting the future state.

British systems engineer Peter Checkland had a similar issue when working with complex systems in the 1970’s.  Checkland’s approach is called Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) to distinguish it from ‘harder’ Systems Dynamics Modelling approaches.  SSM uses a seven step process to move through systems redesign to implementation.  In SSM we start with a complex organisational problem and in step 2 try to describe the problem from a number of perspectives (a ‘rich picture’).  We then extract and define our system of interest, which can be thought of as our Current State VSM, an abstract description of the essential features of the system.

In step 4 we develop an idealised version of how we would like that system to work – our Future State VSM.  What SSM then does is tell us to compare this idealised future state with our rich picture which we developed in step 2 and work with all stakeholders to develop desirable and practical changes we can make to the current system.  Step 5 – the comparison and Step 6 – desirable and feasible changes are the mechanism whereby we generate that commitment to the changes which we are seeking.  Some of the changes suggested by the theoretical Future State Map may not turn out to be practical when discussed with stakeholders – some may not even be desirable from other points of view, but only by engaging with all the stakeholders in steps 5 and 6 can we find this out.

Step 7 is implementation.  Some critics have argued that SSM is light on advice for implementation, but the thought is that the work we have done in steps 5 and 6 paves the way for a much smoother implementation.  In Appreciative Enquiry these are the steps of Envisioning What Might Be, Dialoguing What Should Be and Innovating What Will Be.  The problem with the VSM process is that it takes us straight from ‘what might be’ (Future State) to ‘what will be’ without necessarily dialoguing ‘what should be’.


So the advice is not to abandon your Value Stream Maps, but to use them not as an engineering blueprint, but as a dialogue tool to engage people in a discussion of what should be.

Malcolm Jones
Productivity Europe


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