An Introduction to Value Stream Mapping for Lawyers and Business Development Staff: Part 1 – mapping the current state.

Recently, a number of law firms in the U.K have announced the completion of value stream mapping exercises covering particular practice areas.  Probably because of this, during my conversations with lawyers and law firm business development staff, the concept of value stream mapping arises more frequently than it once did.  Some tell me their firm has started a process mapping exercise, while others are simply curious: what are value stream maps? How can they help law firms improve their legal service delivery?

Jim Hassett notes in his recent book that:

Legal project management adapts proven management techniques to the legal profession to help lawyers achieve their business goals, including increasing client value and protecting profitability.

Value stream mapping is one such technique. Value stream maps can be valuable tools to help understand, and enhance, business processes of all kinds.  The Lean for Dummies cheat sheet (I kid you not, see here) provides an excellent definition of a value stream:

A value stream includes all of the activities, materials, people, and information that must flow and come together to provide clients with the value they want, when they want it and how they want it.

Value stream maps represent all of this activity visually.  At the most basic level the maps are made up of three broad components: a communications flow, a process flow and a timeline. The communications flow records communications between those requesting and providing a product or service. The process flow lists discrete sets of operational activities which have as their output a deliverable of some kind (most commonly in a law firm, a document of some sort). While the timeline records the amount of time items spend waiting to be worked on or are actually worked on (lead time and cycle time respectively).

Value stream maps help identify activities which are relatively wasteful and so contribute less than they should to the overall value being delivered to the purchaser of the product or service.  After less efficient activities have been highlighted, steps can then be taken to either amend or eliminate them. The aim is to improve the efficiency of individual processes, the flow of work between processes and thus the effectiveness of the value stream as a whole.

Each value stream will end up being represented by at least two maps: a ‘current state’ map and a ‘future state’ map (sometimes a third map is also produced, an ‘ideal state’ map). As the name suggests, current state maps are snapshots of the current situation ‘as is’, before any deliberate process improvement activity has taken place. Their most important function is to serve as a communication tool. They are used to help explain value streams in their entirety to all those who work within them.  Sometimes, some people involved in delivering legal services are fully aware only of their bit of the delivery chain.  Presenting people with an holistic view of a legal service delivery stream in its entirety increases opportunity for the sharing of ideas and suggestions for improvement (more of this in my next post).

The aim of process mappers at this stage is that, after some revision, all involved in the value stream can say “yes, that is how things get done around here”.  The current state map need not be a perfect representation of how things work in practice.  It seems generally accepted that, roughly, so long as a map is agreed by all to be about 70% accurate, then this can form a reasonable basis from which to seek process improvements.

Value stream mapping is most often associated with Lean and Six Sigma process improvement methods, which have their origins in manufacturing processes.  In these environments current state maps are produced by observing actual events which make up the value stream.  Current state maps should show:

  • What people do
  • How they do it
  • How they interact with other employees and processes
  • How the entire process flows.

It is easy to imagine following parts around a factory floor, observing a particular production process and mapping that process.  It is less easy to imagine mapping a legal service value stream in a similar fashion.  Dispensing legal advice is clearly not a manufacturing process.  In legal service environments processes are rarely visible to the naked eye. For this reason alone (there are others), value stream maps for legal service delivery need to be created by something other than pure observation.  Although not ideal from a value stream mapper’s point of view, workshops with legal teams can provide a workable alternative to observation.

This method is really akin to a knowledge elicitation exercise, which will be familiar to those of us who have designed legal expert systems or legal workflow systems.  How might this work in practice?  A suggested approach in outline:

  • Process mappers should become familiar with the basics of the legal value stream under investigation and how it works in context before any workshop takes place.  So process mappers will need to do some preparatory work – mappers with a background in law should be particularly well placed here.
  • Process mappers could then do up basic flows based on their own knowledge, on the understanding that these flows are really designed to promote discussion and common understanding between the team members who operate the processes being investigated.  Process mappers should be prepared to revise or throw away their draft process map if necessary.  Perhaps the most crucial point to grasp here is that process mappers should keep an open mind and be prepared to map processes which ideally they observe or, alternatively, they have described and explained to them in good faith by people working in the value stream.
  • Process mappers should prepare for workshops by creating lists of open questions to help prompt discussion and review of the processes and flows under consideration.
  • During the workshops the initial maps will need to be amended and all involved should recognise that this is an iterative process – current state maps should be revised until they at least hit that 70% comfort level referred to earlier.

Suggestions for future improvements should come from those working in the existing value stream.  Analysts who create the maps can help facilitate the generation of ideas for improvement, but it is important that ownership of the ‘future state’ map (ie the map that represents the improved process flow) resides with those running the existing processes.  Ultimately it is they who will need to implement, and live with, change.

Arguably creating current state maps is the easy part of the value stream mapping exercise.  A greater challenge comes when identifying less efficient activities and seeking to introduce improvements into the value stream.  These tasks, and others, will be discussed in my next post.

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