Are you getting true value from your process mapping?

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Process mapping is older, but it has not changed and grown as it should have. Every organization engages in process mapping at some point. Resources are dedicated to it, software is purchased to support it, and auditors check it. But we continue to see missteps in process mapping. Here are four crucial action items that will help you get true value from your investment.

First, be clear about your purpose and objective. You’ve all seen the standard process maps with a collage of squares, circles, triangles and arrows. They are useful but their purpose is planning or training-not continuous improvement. For example, on this type of map you would see a process block entitled: enter customer order. But no real improvement is possible at this level because we can’t see the waste, and the most dangerous kind of waste is what we can’t see. You can’t easily see the waste in walking to the fax machine, returning with the order, opening up two different programs, and cutting and pasting order numbers. Use activity and product process maps for improvement efforts, so you can see that waste. You could never just cut out the order entry step, but virtually everything surrounding that step can be improved or eliminated.

This leads to the second point. Don’t restrict your efforts to just eliminating steps. Look for opportunities to make simple improvements to the steps that remain. Obviously, you should take advantage of every opportunity to stop doing something wasteful. But don’t overlook the potential benefit from making some of the small things simpler.

Third, avoid trying to include everything in one map. The requisite details about information, material and people follow different routes through the factory. Trying to combine them is an almost universal mistake and typically results in losing most of the insights required for making improvements. Such a map is referred to by many as the “spaghetti map.” We refer to this type of map as the three-flows map because it attempts, unsuccessfully, to capture each of the three flows-material, information and people-using three colors. It physically follows a product through the process in a 2D view of the area. But whether you use this map to follow the person or the material, you are still missing something.

The fourth point relates to how you gather information for process mapping. When your objective is improvement, you need to know what is happening, not what is supposed to happen. So put away some of the tools you often use, including process standards. Instead you need input from two complementary and equally important sources. First, you need direct input from those who are doing the work, no matter how complex the task. They know better than anyone what it takes and what gets in the way. Second, go to where the work is being done, observe what’s being done and how it’s being done. There’s no substitute for your own two eyes. This is obviously harder when the process takes three months and is spread over three continents, but that is when input from those involved, and direct observation, are the most critical.

Process mapping is a useful tool in any environment, but only if done effectively. I suggest reevaluating your use of this tool from the ground up. The benefit will be greater gains from your investment in time and dollars.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site