When we at Batesville Casket Company first embarked on the continuous improvement path, we called it JIT (just-in-time). As the term “lean” became popular with the book “Lean Thinking”, we expanded our focus to eliminating waste in our process. We jumped right to massive kaizen mode with literally hundreds of kaizen events across the corporation completed each year.

The little mistake we made was skipping the identification and mapping of our value streams. Even as it was pointed out by our lean sensei that we should do a value stream map, we did not see the value in value stream maps.

Our typical mind-set was: What’s the big deal in doing a value stream map anyway? Why can’t we just make improvements? We know what the problems are and don’t need to waste our time doing maps. We see waste now. Just let us attack it. Aren’t we making improvements without needing these maps? Maps? We don’t need any stinking maps.

Sure, you can make some improvements without value stream maps; however, we learned that not all of our improvement activity led to bottom-line results. What was worse, our improvements did not always add value to our customer. After a little humble reflection, we realized our lean efforts were nothing more than cost reduction and we were starting to stray off the path. What happened to reducing lead time and increasing customer value?

We were faced with another change in our thinking and took a step back to learn about value stream maps. After several training sessions and just doing it, we began adding value stream mapping to our “way of doing things”. We still are not experts at value stream mapping, but we have experienced a nice boost to our continuous improvement efforts.

Where we found the most value in value stream mapping was being able to see and understand the whole process (value stream) where previously no one person ever did. We only knew our little sections of the process. This helped us look at optimizing the whole value stream instead of improving our sections, usually at the expense of the whole. We also started focusing on lead times as opposed to cost reduction. The maps also helped us prioritize our kaizen efforts aimed at making a bigger impact for our customer instead of just a shotgun approach. We now see our kaizen events as “strategic kaizen”. Finally, value stream maps helped us all agree on our current state and what our future state vision looks like. With this shared vision, we began to move forward as a team.

If you have yet to use value stream maps on your lean journey, don’t just dismiss them as an optional step. There is value in value stream mapping.