Turn On Your GPS


A few weeks ago, we went up to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Neither of us had ever been there before so we did what we have always done. One of us will go on either Yahoo or MapQuest and see what the best route is. I should point out immediately that we made a decision the last time we bought a car NOT to pay the extra money for the GPS system that was available.

I am not sure if you have ever used the Yahoo/MapQuest approach before but it is filled with interesting possibilities. For instance, it won’t always tell you when a road suddenly veers to the left or right in the backwoods and suddenly becomes a completely different road with absolutely no identifiable route or name besides “Billy Bob’s Boulevard”. Another favorite part of the mapping tools is the decision you have to make about shortest distance or most freeways (shortest time). Its really kind of important that you make the right selection before you start.

So off we go and the first part of the journey went relatively calmly. It wasn’t until we actually got to the lakes region that things started going a bit off. I am relatively adventurous. I know that at some point, one road will lead to another and you will hit one of four places in the Mainland US: Canada, Mexico, Atlantic, or Pacific. That could explain why I have been to over 600 cities around the world in the past forty years (I keep a travel log of all the places). My co-pilot was understandably getting a bit concerned as we were falling further and further behind on our schedule.

As pretty as the country was, we were scheduled to go on a dinner cruise and it was “non-refundable” whether we made it or not. We finally arrived at the B&B and found that the owners were at the hospital welcoming their first Grand Child. We called the husband for directions to the boat since we were now sure that Yahoo/MapQuest might have led us to the Titanic instead of the actual boat we needed to be on. He said, “Well, just turn on your GPS.” At that very moment, we realized that there was a great tool we could have easily used if only we actually had one.


Upon hearing the sad news about our lack of proper preparation, he gave my navigator very detailed directions… to the wrong boat landing. In his defense, the joy of seeing his first grandchild the day it arrived in the world probably distracted him. There are two boat cruises that the Inn recommends to its customers and the one we actually needed was about thirty miles in the opposite direction we were sent to.

Fortunately, the boat owners were understanding and all worked out well. But it did remind me that if you don’t have the right tools and don’t know how to use them, you will more than likely not make it to where you thought you wanted to go.

Lean has a tool called Value Stream Mapping

Since flow improvement and waste reduction are pretty important goals in lean, this tool is designed to help you understand where you are at the beginning (Current State Map) and where you would like to go (Future State Map). There are measurements and tools within the model that can quickly identify your pockets of waste, bottlenecks, work flow imbalance, inventory pools (planned and unplanned), and if you really know what to look for you can see where your team has reacted to all of these problems with systems they developed which don’t show up on any plan you have ever seen.


I have helped teams walk through this process many times and can assure you that if they are being honest with themselves, they quickly become overwhelmed with low hanging fruit. Hidden inventory is one of my favorites. The old system could not guarantee the Just In Time delivery of parts or goods to where they need to be. But if the team doesn’t make its share of widgets that day, they feel the wrath of the production manager. So the unintended consequence is that the local team leader gathers up all of the “extra” material they need to make sure this never happens. There are so many clever tricks to do this and I will not put them in this article (no use making your work harder…)

The interesting thing about finding these “extras” is the fact that often times the line side people are better at doing inventory planning than the people who are actually supposed to do so. All the charts, graphs, analysis on stock level and AMD will not compare with a well trained cell leader who has been burned on too many occasions.

Value Stream Mapping will help the teams to identify where those issues are, what the root causes are, and how to make sure you come up with a more reliable fix.

But be warned: Value Stream Mapping can be deceptively simple

You might feel the urge to run out this afternoon and buy a good text book on VSM and start making money saving changes first thing tomorrow morning. As someone who likes to experiment, I would say that it will be a lot of fun to watch for all the unintended consequences of blindly bumping into your existing systems. As someone with a conscience, I would feel horrible if I actually encouraged you to do this.

In the early books on lean such as “Learning to See”, the authors take us on a journey of discovery. In today’s competitive environment where so many of the people who want to take your customers away from you, it might be a little late for you to take a leisurely walk through the discovery forest. You need a faster GPS and you need someone to help you turn it on and use it. Then, and only then, you can make use of this tool in ways that will create the long term DNA within your organization.

By the way, VSM can be used in a number of organizations that are not manufacturing. Some of the hottest trends in lean are in health care and finance. But the need for existing manufacturing businesses continues to grow.

Your competition probably already has started their lean journey… what are you waiting for? Turn on Your GPS!!!

Tomorrow’s blog will have a story about how some of the smartest men of their time almost kept America from being able to win World War 2.

Mister Mac

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