You can draw your business process as a flow chart. This is the ideal case. However, your knowledge of the process can be so vague – and you will be surprised at how vague it can be – that you just cannot draw a reasonable flow chart. But there is a whole process for documenting your business process. It’s called Value Stream Mapping, or VSM. This technology is widely used in Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma process quality-improvement efforts. The VSM can be literally drawn on a huge sheet of paper. You customers, plants, trucks, orders, financial forecasts, how they’re all connected – it’s basically a big picture of your business, and it’s a great supplementary tool for starting a value-added analysis. The VSM yields invaluable information about your business process. Often, at least before a crisis hits, no one really looks at the process this way. Not everyone knows how the business actually works and operates. The VSM is a great way to gain a real understanding of what’s happening behind the scenes, if you will.

If you read ‘Learning to See’, a book by Rother and Shook, you’ll learn that a value-stream map is a pictorial representation of all the activities required to bring a product or service to a state of completion. When you map a process, what you’re essentially doing is following the product or service’s path from beginning to end. In other words, you literally go out on the shop floor, you talk to the operators and the experts who do the work, day in and day out. As you do that for each process step in a systematic, rigorous way, you collect data. The data you collect is basically a set of questions. You’re going to be asking questions like: What are the triggers and authorizations for production at this step? What are the information flows? How long does this process take? Why? Ask questions about each process. For a manufacturing process, you’ll ask about set-up times and changeovers and quality, and things like that. As you do this, you draw a visual representation of the material service and the information flows, and you think critically about what that current state is. You want to discover whether there are any problems, to understand each of those problems, and then start to explore what you might need to do to solve them. After you do the analysis of the current state, the idea is to then draw and design a “future state” map of how values should flow in the improved process. I make it sound simple, but it’s really a lot of work.

If you are building a VSM for manufacturing, you want to be onsite and talk to the operators in the room. (Personally, I think the operators in a plant make a lot of sense.) But for transactional processes, where you don’t have operators to talk to or manufacturing processes to put your hands on, I would recommend doing the VSM offsite. Getting people away from their offices helps them stay more focused on your subject. It’s not uncommon to hold a value-stream mapping session as a workshop – and by workshop, I mean something for which you block off a significant segment of time. You should call in an objective facilitator to lead it. It could be someone with experience in your company, or an external consultant. Make sure that you have cross-functional representation. You always need the right group of people in the room. You might even incorporate some training and guidance about value stream mapping along the way. The workshop really helps a team come together around a common vision and mission.

When doing VSM, expect that a lot of people—or some people—may react negatively to what you find. Because as you dig deep and really turn some rocks, you’re likely to discover some waste, and no one wants to be a process owner holding the bag full of waste. So it’s important to make sure that when you do VSM that you’re prepared for that debate.

There is no limit to how big or how small this process can be. Value stream maps take on all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s not the picture you draw that counts. That’s just an tool for the analysis and the critical thinking that takes place. The end result must be an actual plan. This will allow a small or large group to see the business process as a whole, and relatively quickly determine where to focus their efforts. And, most importantly, to formulate a plan. Remember, the crisis has already has one foot in the door.

A common pitfall is to think of the map is the end point, when in fact it’s really just the beginning. Sometimes you need an invention. Sometimes you need innovation. Sometimes you need to start with a new piece of paper and go to a design project. Sometimes you need to appeal to advanced analytics to re-design your process.