To understand value stream mapping, we must first understand what a “value stream”is. Simply put, a value stream is a series of steps that take place to deliver the product or service that customers want or need. To deliver the product or service that customers want, every business has a series of steps that are required. By mapping the value stream, we can better understand what these steps are, where value is being added, where not, and more importantly, how to improve the collective process. Value stream mapping (VSM) provides a company with a structured visualization of the key steps and associated data needed to understand and intelligently make improvements that optimize the entire process.

VSM can be a great tool for determining how to improve supply chains that require complex processes. If you have a very complex process, VSM can be used to get a comprehensive view and understanding of the entire process, or it can be as focused as needed on a segment of the process to achieve specific goals.

It is important to note that the starting and ending points of mapping and continuous process improvement may differ depending on your goals and objectives. You will also find that one company may have different value streams. Value stream maps can be created for each individual product and service for each type of business. But for the purpose of this discussion and so you can better understand how to apply this in the real world, we will focus on VSM as it relates to feature development for enterprise software solutions using a simplified waterfall method.

Unlike process maps or flowcharts, which show only the steps in the process, a VSM shows significantly more information and uses a very different, more linear format. The VSM allows the team and leadership to see where real value is being added in the process so they can improve the overall efficiency of delivering a software product or feature request, not just the number of steps.

Terminology and symbols and what they mean

With so much information in a VSM, it is no surprise that there are terms and features that need some explanation. While we will explain some of the standardized VSM features, keep in mind that they can be customized to achieve specific goals. For example, each value stream map may contain some elements that are unique.


This section maps out the steps of the development life cycle from concept to delivery. However, depending on your goals, this can be focused on specific parts of the process to be as detailed or high level as needed. It usually shows both the task being performed and the person or team performing the task in the box directly below it. Below these boxes you will see smaller fields with important process data. To keep it simple in this example, we chose to show only a few details. C/T stands for “Cycle Time”and S/T stands for “Setup Time.”In practice, however, VSMs can include any number of data points in this section, highlighting relevant information. The yellow triangles show the queue of functions at each stage of the process. The dotted arrows from one stage to the next are called “push arrows.”They show where the product is pushed rather than pulled from one stage to the next.

Time Ladder

The time ladder provides a somewhat simplistic visual representation of the value stream timeline. The upper part of the time ladder shows the average time a function spends in the queue or waiting time at each stage or gate in the process. The lower part of the time ladder shows the average time spent actively working on each feature, or more specifically, when value is actually added to the feature/product during that particular phase.

Cycle time (C/T)

Is the frequency of units/features produced or the average time between the completed production of one unit/feature and the completed production of the next. In our scenario of feature development for an enterprise software solution, cycle time is the average time elapsed between the completion/implementation of one feature request and the completion/implementation of the next.

Setting time (S/T)

Is the amount of time required to prepare for a particular step. For application to software development, depending on the step, this may indicate the amount of time needed to understand what is specifically being asked or the time needed to configure, start or assign a test environment.

Uptime (%)

Gives you an idea of the percentage of total time the processes or systems are actually active.

Lead time

Is the measurement of the average time required for one feature request to go through the entire concept of the development cycle to completion, or from the beginning to the end of the fence.

Branch time

Is a term often used in value stream mapping. It refers to the speed at which you must produce your products to meet customer demand.

Kaizen Burst

(Also known as Kaizen Blitz) refers to a burst of team activity (3-5 days) focused on solving specific challenges. Whereas the goal of the mapping activity is to identify and plan, the goal of a Kaizen burst is to achieve the actual solution. It can be used to address problems that are not solved as quickly as originally planned. An example would be addressing a large number of items in a work queue to bring it down to a more manageable level, or any number of other issues. The goal is to focus a team’s energy and resources on a particular problem, process or activity in an effort to quickly remove the obstacle, waste or solution. Kaizen burst activities can be an important part of performance management to address barriers and create solutions while moving from one level of value stream performance to the next.

History of Value Stream Mapping?

Value stream mapping has become increasingly popular in recent years and is still considered by many to be a relatively new tool for improving business efficiency. Despite that relatively new feel, it has been around for a while and has undergone a number of refinements.

Value stream mapping goes back more than 30 years to the visual mapping technique used at Toyota Motor Corporation. It was then known as the “material and information flow.”It originated when the company’s focus shifted to better understanding the flow of materials and information through their organization. Its popularity grew as American companies observed and studied the efficiency and consistency of Toyota’s operations.

The term “value stream”was first used in the book “The Machine that Changed the World”(1990) by James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos. It was then further popularized by another book, “Lean Thinking”(1996), also written by James Womack and Daniel Jones. These books essentially launched the Lean movement. They defined the value stream as “the sequence of activities an organization undertakes to satisfy a customer’s request.”

When the Lean movement took off, so did the technique developed by Toyota to map the value stream. It has continued to evolve into what we now know as value stream mapping, which is much more applicable and useful for businesses and value streams of all types.


Ultimately, the goal is to develop a corporate culture that delivers the best possible product to meet or exceed customer needs and expectations. This is ultimately done by continuously making improvements in the value stream. As our customers’needs and expectations change, our value streams will also need to continually change and evolve.