What is a “ Brown Paper Exercise “ and What is its’ Value?

What is a “ Brown Paper Exercise “ and What is its’ Value?

By: Jim Gitney   |   blank  December 20, 2018

Here are some facts to consider when deciding to add the Brown Paper Exercise to a Value Stream Mapping Project:

  1. Approximately 65 percent of the population are visual learners
  2. The brain processes visual information 60,000 faster than text
  3. 90 percent of information that comes to the brain is visual
  4. 40 percent of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina
  5. Visual Literacy is the ability to encode (create a visual language) & decode (understand a visual language)
  6. Visual aids improve learning by up to 400 percent

These facts would tend toexplain why more and more things are being communicated with pictures. Websites, presentations, home screens on our computers and telephones try to have as many pictures as possible. They are all dominated by icons that communicate a message to us.  

We have always known in manufacturing that work and quality instructions needed to be as visual as possible in order to simplify instructions and overcome language barriers, education levels and skill levels. Because of this, we have started using more visual learning our consulting work.

The Brown Paper Exercise is an example of an extremely visual supporting tool we use in Value Stream Mapping. Value Stream Mapping requires the creation of workflows in business processes and the graphical representation of those workflows. Working with process owners and utilizing various computer based workflow tools such as Visio, we create Value Stream Maps similar to the one shown here.blank As you can see it is quite busy, but it shows how various processes and activities work together or against each other based on their relative dependencies.

Most people don’t have the patience to sit down and try to understand one of these diagrams and the associated workflows. The picture is too small and too difficult to understand. It is also difficult to create the document in a group setting. At Group50, we have brought back to life an old form of Value Stream Mapping called the Brown Paper Exercise. Long before computers were invented, the only way to do Value Stream Mapping was on paper.  Utilizing paper allows you to be produce maps that are not limited to the size of a computer monitor or projection screen.

Why is this important? There are seven horizontal business practices that every business lives or dies by. These processes are complex and are managed by many different functional silos. Most people don’t understand how they work or how to fix work flow issues with them. Senior management and supporting organizations have the lowest level of understanding because they don’t spend their time in those processes. They only know what they hear from others. 

In Value Stream Mapping we call these swim lanes and a business process such as order fulfillment cross the same swim lane multiple times. Some business processes can have hundreds of stepsblank.  The brown paper exercise results on a quote to cash project for a multi-national company is shown to the right. This brown paper was over 90 feet long and took several weeks to generate. It was created through multiple working sessions with the process owners who helped make sure the workflows were correct and who provided their insight on solutions to people, process and technology issues. We then invited upstream and downstream organizations in to review and validate the inputs and outputs through sessions like the one shown below. It is part of the refinement and learning process. We often find that it changes the perspectives of supporting organizations which in turn causes them to be more receptive of workflow changes.

blankOnce completed, we hang the brown papers up in a large conference room and invite senior management, vendors, colleagues and support resources in for an open house review day where the process owners present the results. At the end of this type of process, there is no doubt that the process and what needs to be fixed is clearly understood by everyone including management and supporting staff.

The value of the Brown Paper Exercise can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is visual and works better with over 65% of your employees
  2. It involves process owners in its creation
  3. It is an educational tool for everyone in the organization that is 4x more effective than any other
  4. The people who help create it also help create solutions to identified process problems
  5. It’s fun
  6. It is one of the first parts of the change management process
  7. It causes senior management to be supportive of recommended changes in people, process and technology
  8. Significantly increases the probability of success

When process owners are involved (especially millennials) they feel heard and relish in being part of the solutions.  As a result, they will be more willing to embrace the required changes in their workflows. So, if you choose to save a few dollars in a Value Stream Mapping project, just be aware that you increase the likelihood that implementing change may be much tougher than you think, lowering your ROI and disengaging your organization.

To speak to a Value Stream Mapping and Brown Paper Exercise expert, call us at (909) 949-9083, send a note to or request more information here.


About the author: Jim Gitney is the CEO of Group50® Consulting and specializes in the development and implementation of manufacturing and supply chain strategies. Jim and the Group50 team are all former executives with well-known manufacturing and distribution companies who understand what it takes to put re-engineer complex business processes and manage the implementation of a successful strategic plan. Group50 has designed a series of strategic assessments, workshops and strategic execution tools that refocus companies and their critical business processes.  

This entry was posted in Continuous Improvement, Driving Continuous Improvement Series, Healthcare, Manufacturing and Distribution, Organizational Development, Strategic Execution, Supply Chain Optimization, Value stream mapping, on December 20, 2018

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