What Is Value Stream Mapping & How Is It Used in Six Sigma

Six Sigma Value Process Mapping

Six Sigma is a popular data-driven management technique designed to improve the quality of products or services by eliminating defects and minimizing variation and waste. Once reserved for manufacturers like Motorola, where it originated, today, industries such as finance, healthcare, tech, and much more use Six Sigma. Organizations face more competition than ever, making customer satisfaction their priority.

How can you satisfy your customers’ quality and cost requirements as rapidly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible? Six Sigma is a systemic approach to turning these questions into reality.

Central to this method is value stream mapping (VSM), a technique for creating a visual guide encompassing all the components necessary to deliver a product or service. The goal is to analyze and optimize the entire process. If you’re a Six Sigma professional or are considering getting certified, knowing how to use value stream mapping is essential to your role.

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Understanding Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping analyzes and optimizes the flow of materials and information required to bring a product or service to the customer. It typically involves taking a high-level process map and expanding on it to deeply analyze each step in an overall workflow or series of processes. Think of it as assessing an existing process map more rigorously by accounting for every action required to turn a product from raw materials into a beneficial result that ultimately ends up in the customer’s hands.

Creating a visual representation of all the elements that go into making a process enables organizations to apply Lean Six Sigma principles to reduce waste in specific areas of their processes.

History of Value Stream Mapping

VSM as a concept has existed for over a century. As Jim Womack explains, the core ideas behind value-stream mapping were originally invented by Henry Ford in the early 20th century at his Highland Park plant for the Model T. Ford lined up fabrication activities like casting, machining, and welding into a continuous flow he called “flow production.” However, it was limited to a single product with no variations. Toyota later advanced these concepts through the work of Taiichi Ohno, who developed ways to create flow with high variety and low volume products, pulled by customer demand.

While schematics illustrating material and information flow existed earlier, such as in Charles E. Knoeppel’s 1918 book Installing Efficiency Methods, significant industrial implementation came with the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. By the 1990s, value-stream mapping had spread beyond manufacturing into more information-based industries like software development, logistics, and healthcare.

Key Components and Symbols

Value stream mapping uses common components to identify value-adding activities, non-value-adding activities, bottlenecks, inventory levels, and other critical aspects of a process. There can be hundreds of potential types of inputs when value stream mapping, but some common symbols include:

  • A Process Box or Activity Symbol represents a specific step or activity within the process. It uses a rectangular box with a brief description of the activity inside.
  • Customer/Supplier represents the external entities that receive or provide inputs to the process. Customers are typically depicted with an arrow pointing toward them, while suppliers are shown with an arrow pointing away from them.
  • Material Flow is depicted as solid lines or arrows
  • Information Flow is illustrated as dashed lines or arrows
  • Inventories are typically shown as triangles or stacks of boxes, with the height indicating the inventory quantity.
  • Inventories Work in Process (WIP) are triangles with a diagonal line indicating incomplete status.
  • Wait Time/Delay is depicted as a clock or hourglass
  • Kaizen Burst represents areas of improvement or opportunities for continuous improvement, which is fundamental to Six Sigma. Kaizen appears as a small explosion or lightning bolt symbol pointing toward the area of improvement.

An example of a value stream map format is a generic map showing the physical product flow from suppliers to customers, indicating inventory stages, transport modes, and delays at each step.

The Six Sigma Approach to Value Stream Mapping

Six Sigma’s goal is to rigorously analyze a process to surface wasteful activities, defects, and variability to optimize the workflow for smooth overall flow at each stage. The purpose of VSM is the same: finding and eliminating waste to maximize value to you and your customers. VSM is a valuable Six Sigma tool for identifying and removing the time and energy of no value.

During value stream mapping, organizations can conduct statistical analysis to quantify process inefficiencies, identify root causes of waste, and prioritize improvement opportunities. By leveraging Six Sigma tools such as Statistical Process Control (SPC) or hypothesis testing, organizations can validate the effectiveness of process improvements identified through VSM.

Value Stream Mapping and DMAIC

At Six Sigma’s root is data, used to make informed business decisions. VSM lends itself well to the Six Sigma philosophy as part of the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) framework. After you use value stream mapping to identify improvement opportunities, you can use DMAIC as a structured problem-solving approach to guide and implement those changes. For example, you could create a current state map with VSM, then use the Analyze phase of DMAIC to identify bottlenecks and waste and proceed to the Improve phase to implement solutions.

Benefits of Six Sigma Value Stream Mapping:

  • Enhanced process visibility and understanding
  • Improved operational efficiency and waste reduction
  • Better product quality and customer satisfaction
  • Inexpensive and easy to implement
  • A comprehensive view of your entire production and delivery process
  • Find problems and fix them
  • Applicable throughout an organization
  • Builds an environment that values collaboration, teamwork, and communication.

Examples of VSM

We encounter simple situations in everyday life that lend themselves well to value stream mapping. Take, for example, when you buy something online and track your package from the point of purchase until it reaches your doorstep. You can visually map the entire process, starting when you, the customer, purchase an item and ending when the eCommerce company delivers it to your doorstep.

With VSM, you could look at each step to find the inefficiencies: did you find the desired product on their website easily? Did the retailer give you regular updates about your delivery status? Did they deliver it to you in a reasonable timeframe? 

VSM Case Study: Healthcare

Imagine the emergency room of a large hospital with long patient wait times, overcrowding, and dissatisfaction among patients and staff. Using value stream mapping, they could analyze the patient flow and treatment process in the emergency department and consult with physicians, nurses, administrators, and Six Sigma facilitators to map out the current state of patient flow, from triage to discharge.

Value stream mapping would help the hospital system find areas for improvement. If there are excessive wait times for diagnostic tests or discharge procedures, the hospital must understand the choke points. Once it does, it can streamline diagnostic testing and improve communication between departments to get more patients in and out faster and increase patient satisfaction scores.

VSM Case Study: Manufacturing

In this scenario, an appliance manufacturer faces long lead times and high inventory levels in their assembly line. These problems are driving up costs and making it harder to respond to customer demand. Using value stream mapping, the manufacturer will analyze their assembly process from raw materials to finished vehicles, pulling in cross-functional teams of production engineers, supply chain experts, and frontline workers to map out the current state of the assembly line.

Through VSM, they will pinpoint a few non-value-adding activities, including excessive downtime between steps on the assembly line and overproduction of specific appliance components. The response is reorganizing workstations and implementing pull-based production, which drops lead times and inventory levels, driving significant cost savings and better customer responsiveness.

7 Steps to Create a Value Stream Map

Creating a value stream map is a powerful way to visualize, analyze and improve the flow of materials and information in a process. It allows you to identify waste, inefficiencies, and opportunities for optimization from the customer’s perspective. Follow these seven steps to create an effective value stream map:

  1. Identify the process you want to map
  2. Draw your current value stream map
  3. Assess your current value stream
  4. Create a “future state” value stream map
  5. Develop a plan to implement the desired state
  6. Implement the plan
  7. Review and repeat for continuous improvement

Step #1: Identify the process you want to map

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes to determine their issues with your organization. The problems could be a product manufacturing process, a service delivery process, or any other sequence of activities that delivers value to the customer.

Step #2: Draw your current value stream map

Define the starting and ending points of the value stream, including all relevant processes, departments, and stakeholders involved in delivering the final product or service. Trace the flow of one unit (product or service) through the process and consult with the relevant personnel to ensure you have all the steps.

Step #3: Assess your current value stream

Observe the process in action, interview employees and stakeholders, review process documentation, and collect relevant performance metrics and data. Include metrics for each process step, such as how long it takes, the median time, and resource usage. Review the current state map to identify inefficiencies, bottlenecks, waste, and opportunities for improvement.

Step #4: Create a “future state” value stream map

Look at the waste you’ve identified, and then ask yourself:

  • What’s your vision for the ideal future state of the value stream?
  • What are your specific improvement goals?
  • Is it reducing lead times, improving quality, or increasing productivity?

Your future state map should incorporate changes and improvements identified during the analysis of the current state and present a complete picture of what the final version would ideally look like (always aligning with the organization’s visions and goals).

Step #5: Develop a plan to implement the desired state

It’s now time for the action plan, which details how to implement your mapped solutions. The plan should:

  • Assign responsibilities to appropriate personnel, allocate resources, and establish timelines for implementing improvement initiatives.
  • Prioritize improvement opportunities based on their potential impact on key performance metrics, alignment with organizational goals, and feasibility of implementation.
  • When prioritizing, consider factors such as resource availability, the complexity of changes, and dependencies between improvement initiatives.
  • Include metrics aligned with the objectives and provide meaningful insights into process performance.

Step #6: Implement the plan

Monitor progress closely against the established timelines, milestones, and KPIs and adjust as needed to ensure success. As the plan begins, provide training and resources to ensure teams have the knowledge and tools to execute their assigned tasks effectively.

Step #7: Review and repeat

Six Sigma, by design, creates a culture of lasting change and continuous improvements. Implementing your improvements isn’t the end of your job; it’s the beginning. Establish a system for continuous monitoring and evaluation of the value stream’s performance and track key performance indicators and metrics to assess the effectiveness of process improvements.

Advanced Techniques and Tools for Value Stream Mapping

Lean Six Sigma professionals have been using value stream mapping for decades without the benefit of digital tools. Today, it’s imperative to integrate technology for real-time data analysis and tracking. But not just any software will do; you want VSM tools that have:

  • Visualization capabilities
  • Built-in data analysis
  • Integration capabilities with other business tools
  • Collaboration features

Microsoft Visio, MindMeister, GitMind, and others are great ways to bring flowcharting and mapping into the modern era.


Value stream mapping allows one to analyze any organizational process rigorously enough to surface wasteful activities, defects, and variability so that the workflow can be optimized for smooth overall flow at each stage.

Six Sigma VSM helps maximize value and minimize waste by enabling:

  • Better communication and collaboration
  • Continuous process improvements
  • A culture of excellence in your organization
  • Easy visualizations of waste, excess inventory, and production constraints

If you’re ready to impact your organization significantly, a Six Sigma certification will give you the knowledge to drive value and bring your career to the next level. Over 150,000 certified graduates from the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East have trusted our accredited programs to enhance their careers. See why multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and BP and government organizations like the US Department of Defense use Six Sigma Online to help them achieve operational excellence.

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