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Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by Karen Martin

When you think of value stream transformation, what are the most common desired outcomes that come to mind? Shorter lead times? Higher quality? Reduced expenses?

Expansive thinkers often go beyond these classic performance indicators and aim for improvements such as shorter-to-market lead time for new products, greater market share, smoother acquisitions, and less painful annual budgeting cycles.

These are all noble pursuits that can be accomplished more easily through the proven practice of value stream mapping. However, in our experience, the deepest transformational benefits from well-executed value stream mapping activities are often people-based. You see, improvement and organizational transformation are deeply psychological. Looking exclusively for tangible results ignores the reality that people are psychological beings. Being aware of and playing into human psychology can be tremendously healing—for both the individuals involved and the organization-at-large.

There are three core conditions that well-executed value stream improvement cycles foster that are wickedly effective in achieving quantifiable performance improvement. They are also humanistic at their core.

LEADERSHIP ALIGNMENT The word “alignment” has been bandied about so much that it has achieved buzzword status. Buzzword or not, leadership alignment is a linguistically accurate aim—and critical for achieving outstanding performance. And it’s often missing. During our initial work with client leadership teams, they’ll often declare, “Of course we’re aligned!” But when we listen to the conversations, observe body language, and learn how an organization solves problems, we often see moderate to high degrees of leadership misalignment over issues that are fundamental to an organization’s success. In the most egregious cases, the misalignment leads to high degrees of dysfunction.

Appearing to play well in the sandbox with one’s peers is not a valid indicator of what’s going on psychologically. And, what’s going on psychologically in every leader’s head is directly tied to how well the organization will perform.

·Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes the organization should offer a new service or move into a new geographic area, while another believes the organization should focus on fundamentals.

·Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that a certain type of work belongs in his/her part of the organization and another leader believes it belongs elsewhere.

·Alignment is NOT present when one leader believes that one part of the organization is under-performing, while another leader doesn’t see it.

Value stream mapping helps a leadership team align around organizational purpose, strategic direction, annual business goals, and improvement priorities. It provides a powerful forum for leaders to gain clarity, focus, consensus, and commitment.

Done well, value stream mapping shines a light into cobwebbed corners of an organization and allows them to be cleared. It surfaces the truth—unequivocally and unapologetically. It reveals the cracks in a company’s operation, the financial model it uses, how it sells its goods or services, and how it treats its suppliers, customers, and employees. It uses facts to challenge leadership biases and misperceptions.

But it also creates a safe haven for the crucial conversations that need to occur so that the organization can heal itself and accelerate its journey to excellence.

With a newfound understanding of current reality, leadership teams typically come together in profound ways. (It also surfaces very clearly when a leader will remain misaligned and needs to find a new home!) With a shared commitment for the future state and the improvement priorities needed to get there, they morph into a cohesive, collaborative whole that spreads to the frontlines and fuels the transformation process.


The second outcome that speaks to the human side of value stream mapping is around the work itself. Respect for people is a core tenet of Lean management and goes far beyond how one is treated in meetings, in hallways, and in the cafeteria. In fact, the greatest measure of how much respect for people is present in an organization is the degree to which team members can succeed in doing their work and fully utilize their knowledge, skills, aptitude for learning, and creative potential (KSAC).

Unfortunately, in many organizations, people are forced to work with kludgy work systems and processes that make it impossible to be successful, no matter how well-intended and highly skilled one is.

To make matters worse, people are often blamed for problems instead of first looking at the systems and processes that created the environment for the problems to occur.

Gathering a leadership team together to understand the current state of how value flows—or doesn’t flow—to customers creates a powerful venue for seeing how difficult it can be for staff to be successful. After the current state discovery process, many leaders have admitted that they were embarrassed by what they learned. But while developing a deep understanding of the current state can be sobering, it provides the leadership insight needed to launch true organizational transformation.

The process of streamlining workflows, closing gaps, correcting disconnects, and reducing redundancy and rework provides a more humanistic and respectful work environment for the people who deliver customer value, which brings me to the third and final outcome


The need for “humanistic workplaces” has been mentioned more and more in business literature. And millions of workers around the globe would agree. What’s not being talked about as much—and needs to be—is the need for creating “humanistic customer experiences.”

Value stream analysis and design has always centered on “providing value to customers.” This is an apt description of the essence of why businesses exist. However, while the original mainstream definition of value—are they willing to pay for it?—is still a relevant question, it’s an overly simplistic definition of value.

All too often the customer experience is filled with frustration, unmet expectations, painful degrees of effort to fix something that shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with—and, in the worst cases, injury or death. These are untenable outcomes—especially if providing value centers on solving customer problems, not causing additional ones.

The human side of providing value places an obsessive emphasis on creating an effort-free experience—and one that builds relationships and connections between people versus one that results in frustrated customers yelling at customer service reps. Should customers be better at controlling their frustrations? Perhaps. But shouldn’t we work on root cause here? Shouldn’t we design work systems that actually work and eliminate the chance of frustration to even emerge?

Done well, value stream thinking, does exactly that. Humanistic future state designs place heavy emphasis on eliminating anything that causes the customer to feel anything but joy and appreciation for the wonderful product or service they received. This is true both during the process of buying a product or consuming a service—and as the post-sale experience. Instead of improving processes for processing warranty requests or handling customer complaints, we need to prevent the need for these processes.

Instead of accepting work systems that drive people apart, we need to design work systems that bring people together. Customer joy and ease should be the norm instead of the exception. This is what customer value is all about. Bringing humanity to goods and services—and humanity to the process for accessing them.


Value stream mapping is far more than a tool to achieve quantifiable business performance improvement. It’s a repetitive management practice that helps build an appetite for surfacing the truth, solving problems, resolving complacency, and designing a better tomorrow. When well-designed future states become reality, organizations can finally realize their full potential.

Done well, value stream thinking deepens understanding, heals relationships, and brings a human side to business.


Karen Martin is the President of TKMG, Inc. and the Founder and President of TKMG Academy, Inc. She’s also the author of five business performance improvement books, three of them award-winning. For more information on Leader Standard Work, consider taking the TKMG Academy course of the same name.

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