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The Mythical Value Stream Manager

by Mike Orzen
September 27, 2019

The Mythical Value Stream Manager

by Mike Orzen
September 27, 2019 | Comments (11)

For decades, the lean community has been talking about the importance of creating and managing customer value across the value stream. A value stream is comprised of all the activities performed to create, manage and deliver value to customers. It includes all the wasteful and broken processes we have come to accept as inherent in the way the work gets done. A key player who focuses on coordinating and aligning the efforts of all pieces of the value stream is the value stream manager. Their goal is to get everyone working together and aligned toward the common goal of optimizing their entire value stream. I like to call this character the “mythical value stream manager” because they are described in books, but seldom seen in the wild - much like a unicorn.

This person is the master coordinator among silos, conflicting priorities, constrained resources and localized performance. No small task as most people focus on improving that small piece of work they have been assigned to and seemingly have control over. Can you really fault anyone for trying to make things better? Lean teaches us waste reduction, minimizing variation and addressing overburden as ways to improve flow. It’s no surprise that we attempt to apply these methods and tools to our own work first!

But herein lies the problem as well as the opportunity: local improvements do almost nothing to improve value stream performance and often negatively impact overall flow of the same value stream the team intended to improve!

Good intentions gone awry

I worked with a company whose Document Control Department decided to make improvements to their work processes with the noble intent of improving the flow of customer value. The company had been experiencing many delays in updating controlled documents (work instructions, drawing and technical specifications). The focus was on the time it was taking to process change requests and deliver updated and accurate documents to the appropriate work groups. The current process was taking days and sometimes weeks and crippling production and service levels in departments across the company. The team had received lean training and requested the help of a lean facilitator to guide them through an improvement effort.

After a focused 3-day effort, the team generated a series of countermeasures intended to address the blockers in their workflow which slowed or stopped their work. They rolled out the changes and measured the impact. Success! The total time it took from start to completion of their section of the value stream went for days to hours to minutes. The team held a party to celebrate the amazing results. They invited the departments whom they delivered they worked for. Surprisingly, no one attended!

A few people from the team were curious why no one came to the celebration. They paid a few people a visit and quickly found that the improvements they made had shifted work and problems to the very people they were trying to serve! Instead of impacting the flow of value across the value stream, they had optimized their flow by shifting the non-value added work to others. One team member shared, “What we discovered was that we had taken out the trash from our work flow  and dumped on our neighbors’ front yard! To make matters worse, we then threw a party and invited them to share in the fun. Our efforts were well intended, but we completed screwed things up!”

Without a person focusing of the flow of the value stream, how can we expect leaders and front line contributors to coordinate their efforts to create improvements that ultimately impact the customer? When so many of our performance measures are focused on local results, how can we understand and support value-stream level outcomes?

Why we don’t have value stream managers

If we accept the importance of creating flow and the impact of a designated value stream overseer, then why are they so rare? There are many reasons (excuses) that come up including: 

  • It’s not my job to focus beyond my area of responsibility
  • I’m busy just keeping my head above water
  • My numbers are good, go pick on someone else
  • I agree it’s important, but don’t step on my turf and try to influence my program
  • My incentives determine my focus and my behavior
  • Who needs more responsibility without authority? This is a fool’s errand!

Whether you agree with these points or not, they’re real in the minds of many.

What can we do about it?

When leaders understand and appreciate the potential impact of a designated role focused on managing the value stream to improve the flow, quality and value at the speed of customer need, they may be willing to run an experiment. Create the role, provide clear goals and boundaries, socialize the change and gain support, gather baseline performance measures, run a trial for 90 days, re-assess performance by comparing to baseline, reflect on the results, share the learning, take your next step based on the learning. Sounds easy! It’s not.

  • Identify a pilot area where you can test the effectiveness of value-stream focus
  • Socialize the idea with every part of the stream (all the silos, vendors, departments, customers, managers and leaders (start with the leaders)
  • Recruit a person who is willing to take on a temporary role of value stream manager – they’ll need a mandate to make things happen – this might be in the vocal support of the CEO or GM
  • Plan on getting it wrong, learning from mistakes and making adjustments based on the data

Measures help people align

What works best to align people across the value stream is the use of value-stream level metrics that everyone is measured by. When everyone is playing off a common scoreboard, they shift their efforts from localized to global results. Here’s a few examples:

  • Value stream percent complete and accurate
  • Value stream cycle time
  • Order fulfillment rate
  • Returns

Give it a try

If you  want to make a serious impact in your improvements, consider shifting your focus outward to a value-stream level perspective and find someone who is willing to take on the role of value stream leader. They’ll have to work with others based on what makes the most successful sense to the value stream rather than a single department or functional area. Approach this work as a learning experiment and expect many check/adjusts along the way. Good luck!

Until you shift to a focus on value-stream level performance, most improvement efforts are destined to miss the mark as they will shift waste and inefficiencies to another part of the business. Customers won’t feel the difference, even if you are celebrating the results! But what if your competition is focusing on value-stream improvements? From your customers’  perspective working with you, if things aren’t getting better, they’re actually getting worse.


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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban September 27, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

When you talk about the "mythical value stream manager," that seems like the correct term.

How many companies have actually created this role, even as a temporary measure? Is this still a what-if thought experiment (or hypothesis) or do we have real examples to point to of the "value stream manager" being helpful and effective?

Reply »

Ajay Sampatrao Shinde September 27, 2019


How is value stream cycle time calculated?

Is it sum of all the CT in the process steps, how about mixed model?



Ajay Shinde

Reply »

Michael Orzen September 27, 2019

Hi Ayjay,

Just do a simple search on the lean enterprise website and you should be able to find the  calculation formula you are looking for. 



Reply »

Michael Orzen September 27, 2019

Hi Mark,

I agree completely. If people would simply embrace the spirit experimentation,  they might discover the true impact of value stream management!

 It’s amazing to think about this fundamental practice that has been lost in the majority of “lean“ organizations. 




Reply »

Rob September 27, 2019

I see the "mythical value stream managers" every day. In fact I'm surrounded by them and the Value stream support teams from different functional departments as they work together to improve the overall value stream QCDMS.

It takes a long journey with 100% top level commitment but it can be done.

Best assumption as to why it might be extremely difficult in some organizations might be the size and maturity of its core practices. We had some advantages as we could align the creation of the physical value streams with the Management structure. 


Reply »

Mike Orzen September 27, 2019

That is great Rob. What industry are you in? How long did it take you to reach this level of maturity? What were the most challnging obstacles along the way? Can you provide specific examples of the "core practices" you are referring to?



Reply »

tom richardson September 29, 2019



I was thinking about how you described when one department improved their process, their waste ultimately got added on to another department creating no actual improvement for the entire stream. I think people are often very focused on the metrics their companies base their compensation on and don't realize that true improvement must be felt on every level.



Reply »

MPG October 01, 2019

Good quality is one of the most important aspects of a well-working lean system.  Please endeavor to be a good example and proof read the posts before publishing.  This post was riddled with errors.  They completely distracted from the important message and made LEI appear unprofessional.

Reply »

Mike Orzen October 01, 2019

Thanks for the feedback - I assumed the submission had been edited/proofed by another set of eyes. This apparently was not the case. I am sorry this was a source of distraction for you MPG.

All the best,



Reply »

Jeremy Beieler October 09, 2019

Properly aligning the mangers along the value stream is important.  Not only does it reduce cross functional conflict, it helps team members see beyond their respective areas.  Furthermore, visualizing the entire process on the shop floor helps team members see their role in the big picture and the impact that they have.  This helps establish engagment and buy in from the bottom up.

Reply »

Brittany Lucas October 23, 2019

It is very common that what we believe to be an improved process is actually just a redelegation of the work load. It is important that although some local problems need to be addressed, we need to evaluate the entire value stream before any implementation, and a value stream manager is the perfect position to ensure that happens. Aside from the many excuses, I like to believe that many current employees or leads will step up to make a positive change, espeically after they see the potential of what the company can become with their help.  Keeping the assigned leadership roles inside the organization is of upmost importance because only they have the deepest level of understanding of the current process flow and where bottlenecks occur. As you mentioned, the whole point of process improvement is for the customer to receive the benefits directly and working together is the only way to achieve that goal.  I appreciate your point that mistake will happen and that adjustments will need to be made.  When these things occur, people tend to become discouraged in their efforts.  Minor setbacks do materialize but they are sure to push you forward in the longrun. Thanks for sharing! 

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