Learning to See in 2023

Pat’s comments on my last post reminded me of another post I had written a decade (!!!) ago titled Learning to See in 2013*. I think it is time for reflection and an update. That being said, I think the 2013 post has actually aged pretty well. I don’t see anything in it I would retract, just some things to further clarify or amplify.

Of course that implies that we (our community) is still largely stuck in the same groove we were a decade ago. *sigh*

Let’s ask some questions:

Who is “Learning to See?”

The first time I made a real value stream map was in 1999. A plant manager asked me to build a map of the flows in his factory. I spent three or four days talking to his area managers to get their understanding, observing flows on the shop floor, getting actual cycles, comparing what I observed with what those managers thought was going on.

With all of that information, I mapped out the factory’s flows. It took four 11×17 (A3 size) sheets taped together to depict what happened as raw steel came in one end of the building and was cut, bent, welded, painted, and assembled with purchased components into the final product.

I learned a lot, not only about mapping a process, but about the way this factory functioned, and had pretty compelling evidence that the bottleneck was not what the common knowledge said it was.

I dutifully presented my findings to the plant manager and his continuous improvement manager. And things pretty much ended there.

Years later, another plant manager asked me to come out to their site and map their value streams. This time I was pretty insistent that though I was happy to come out and facilitate the process, it really had to be the site leaders that were doing the observations and building the map. What they wanted, though, was for me to report my findings to them once I was done. I still scratch my head about that one as the General Manager was an ex-Toyota guy who knew better.

Which brings us to:

Who is mapping the process?

A production team reviews their understanding on a value stream map

Regardless of what structure you use to map your process (VSM, Swim Lanes, SIPOC, to name a few), the learning comes from the experience of building the map and then having to explain it to someone else.

That second bit is important: If you can’t explain it to someone else, you probably don’t understand it as well as you thought.

So, if you are a consultant or internal change agent, and you build the map and then try to explain it to management, guess who learned the most? (Hint: It wasn’t your audience.) The key point here is if your objective is for the line leaders to gain insight into what is actually happening, you are unlikely to accomplish that objective by explaining it to them. They will never gain as much insight as you did.

In the photo above, it is the operational leaders who are explaining what they are learning to me. I’m just asking questions until I understand. They ended up going back out to the shop floor more than a couple of times as the picture came into focus.

Why are you mapping the process in the first place?

I asked this question in the 2013 post: “Why are you doing this at all?” with a context of having some kind of strategic intent, a challenge, in mind.

If there isn’t a concrete challenge or objective in place, this quickly turns into a “What could we improve?” exercise followed by a calculation about whether it is even worth going through that effort or might be cheaper to just outsource the entire thing to a “low wage country.”

But there is another, more tactical, reason to ask this question.

If your step was “Make a value stream map,” then “What do you expect as a result of taking that step?”

I have heard responses such as “I expect the leaders to see what they need to fix.” That, actually, is a testable outcome if you do so with intent. But if you are frustrated that, time after time, a current state process gets mapped and then nothing else happens, then it might be time to ask “What am I learning?”

This kind of brings us back to the importance of that overall strategic intent, because that is what drives the necessity to then build a possible future state map that, if we can operate that way, will deliver the results we need. From that we can establish challenges for individual local leaders and work with them (coach them) toward reaching those challenges.

Again – this is all a lot of work. And it is hard. Thus it is equally important to understand that the higher level goal here is to build capability and competence within your organization. If you forget that part, then it is all to easy to just outsource the mapping (see the beginning of this post) or, worse, outsource your entire value-add chain.

*The title of that post, and this one, is based on a groundbreaking book by Mike Rother and John Shook, Learning to See. Published in 1999, it introduced the term “value stream map” into the vernacular. And it was the first significant publication of the then newly-formed Lean Enterprise Institute. I think Learning to See actually had the impact of establishing a genre – practical application workbooks that sent beyond just discussing benchmark examples and general principles.

4 Replies to “Learning to See in 2023”

  1. Mark, similar to you, I have been asked by factory managers to map their operation to find out what needs to be fixed. Even though this approach works, I find it backwards. To be really effective, to learn to see, we must start with the business problem to be solved, creating an anchor point for the activity, define the reason why. Only then walk the line with the core team so they see with open eyes the things they should see. And then create the map plus driver tree to translate observations into opportunities. In my view it’s important to take a problem-oriented approach to mapping.

  2. Thank you for this timely and important post, Mark. As always, you bring out the important points so well and I’m grateful for the reminder that this is a rich process that develops all kinds of capability and competence in seeing if we don’t focus on getting the map or the “fix” done. We are BUILDING the map itself and we are BUILDING people.

    As practitioners, we have found that the observing and the initial (and subsequent) conversations between the value stream managers (VSM) (aka value stream map-makers/observers) is the work. Not only do I learn what the VSMs are seeing and thinking, we have an opportunity to identify and discuss each of our observing and thinking gaps including our assumptions based on what is revealed in the conversation. BUT, this is taking us years to get to the right conversations and it is HARD.

    Each short cut in the process of mapping and discussing/sharing that we have taken has led to a very long road back to where we need to be. As we strive to shorten these diverting paths, we are learning that these conversations certainly drive the need for continuously developing more effective communication and relational skills that can only be learned through deliberate practice and adjusting.

  3. I appreciate this a great deal. From “what” to “who” has been a career transition for me personally over the past 10 or so years. Not necessarily in the focus on coaching and development of colleagues or being coachable myself but in terms of organizational alignment. Which brings me to my point; “Why are we doing this (map) at all?” The focus on “who” leads to the business imperative and the importance to the organization in deciding which problem are we going to resource and solve? The “who” in my case is usually the largest and/or most important customers. The external focus, in practice, has led to a meaningful dialog with these customers and what value means to them. This is especially true if you have examples to show and teach what it important to the customer and why. This in turn has led to a much deeper understanding of the improvement context and how individuals + process sum up to the whole. Now we can row in the same direction and a higher level organizational challenge can have meaning for people at a very personal level.

    I am reading the previous point into Mark’s quote; “This kind of brings us back to the importance of that overall strategic intent, because that is what drives the necessity to then build a possible future state map that, if we can operate that way, will deliver the results we need.” I’m just adding Brian’s comment here “will deliver the results our customer requires.”

    Being able to articulate (out loud) the internal and external “who” I am serving is the starting point. Ultimately leading to a much deeper understanding of the current condition and why the work is necessary. So, these days I start with who.

  4. Mark, It’s interesting to read, and I think a great point about who should be involved in making the map. An interesting side note. I was introduced to VSM “Learning to See” in 2005. I was taught that the people involved with the process, including supervision, but mostly those in the process should be the ones making the map and collecting the data. Since I was taught this as a consultant, whose job was not to just get things done but to teach. As only people who learn & do, and repeat, will be able to find the ability to do it again in the future. A key item here when I learned it is that VSM is about 4 things. A) Current state; B) Future State; C) Make changes towards achieving the future state; D) 6 months later, do it again. The only way an organization can come close to working on C & D is by their having learned to do it. Been doing that now for almost 20 years, and it always so gratifying to learn and see others ‘learn to see’! To the point you made, I never gave it a thought, that I would do it to them. Guess that is part of what ‘fake lean’ can be. Your article is a strong point as to how it should be done. ( one could argue about my comment about 4 things, but learning and utilizing what tools to make changes with ,that will work, is a whole nother learning category).

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