Seeing is Believing with Value Stream Mapping



With all of the moving parts within a manufacturing business (both literal and figurative), it’s easy to lose sight of strategic objectives. What if your management team had a way to actually see all of the goals and processes of your entire organization in one clear visual? Fortunately, value stream mapping provides just such a solution.

This Lean method of management comes from the idea that every process, product and service has a value stream – the chain of activities involved in completing a given task. This activity stream forms the basis for creating a visual map tool, which encompasses all the steps, decisions and people involved in a specific process. By laying out actions in this way, value stream mapping can be used to effectively deploy and monitor your assets and activities.

One type of such mapping is swim lane process mapping, a technique ideal for tracking goal progress and identifying responsibilities at every step of a process. This is accomplished by creating a visual structure that tracks workflow along with the people, places and things that impact it.

Swim lane maps begin with establishing and listing all tasks and sub-processes involved in a particular project, including all decision-making that might affect the workflow. Each “swim” lane then represents a different department to better distinguish and divide capabilities, roles and responsibilities present in all process steps.

The actual labelling of the lanes can be accomplished in a number of ways, with both vertical and horizontal lines included in the visual tool. For example, vertical lanes may represent a sequence of events, while horizontal lanes could depict which department, person or material is involved in an activity, with symbols to show how the actual process workflow takes place.

Once all of this is properly arranged and labelled, the map is used to analyze all steps of the process and categorize them as value added, non-value added, or necessary non-value added. Following this determination, non-value-added steps can be eliminated, and necessary non-value-added steps can be minimized. Laying out the steps in this way can help to identify and eliminate bottlenecks, inefficiencies and redundancies, leading to a faster and more productive workflow.

Swim lane mapping brings issues to the surface that you may not have previously noticed, raising new opportunities for improvement along the way. This seemingly simple management method accomplishes these complicated tasks through:

  1. Guiding processes. Swim lane diagrams provide a comprehensive visual reference tool that allows anyone to easily answer questions such as, “what happens next?” or “who is responsible for this task?” This mapping technique provides a level of operational transparency and accountability that is not otherwise easily achieved.
  2. Encouraging effective communication between process roles. Whether it’s improving production times, installing a new computer system or onboarding new hires, swim lane maps clearly determine areas of responsibility and display how all tasks depend on each other to be completed. This encourages collaboration and communication among departments to ensure all steps are completed effectively and on time.
  3. Identifying each team’s responsibility. This is important for both current and future initiatives. Responsibilities covered in process maps should include every organizational unit involved in a given activity along with any source of input, such as documents, data or approvals, as well as anyone receiving an output from the process.
  4. Providing flexibility. When creating your own swim lane map, you can choose which elements and symbols to include based on your company’s needs and activities. In addition to the standard “start,” “step,” “decision” and “end” symbols, various levels of complexity can be introduced to the map to provide overviews or specific details, and symbols representing outside data, documents or events can be incorporated.
  5. Anticipating future changes. Once areas of improvement are identified through the map, team members can brainstorm ways to address each issue and implement changes. The process does not end there, however, as swim lane maps also can help map out proposed changes to identify potential risks and rewards ahead of time.

This visual management tool can give your company the ability to identify issues and opportunities for improvement that you did not previously know existed, or did not believe to be real problems. With value stream mapping, seeing really is believing.

Roger TomlinsonLean Program Manager
Roger has been a Program Manager in The Center’s Lean Business Solutions program for 18 years. He has trained and mentored hundreds of Michigan manufacturers in the entire portfolio of Lean strategies and methods (e.g., Kaizen events, Standardized Work, 5S/Workplace Organization, Value Stream Mapping, Total Productive Maintenance, Culture Change, Team Building, operations management and process re-engineering). In addition to his training and consulting work, Roger has over 20 years of experience in manufacturing management.
Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Lean Principles