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   |     February 16, 2022

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. It is interactive, fun and can be done via a hybrid model of in-person and virtual. 

Group50’s Brown Paper Exercise is an important tool that we use every day in process reengineering. It is part of our Value Stream Mapping process.  It provides an engaging, non-threatening way for many process owners (virtual and in-person) and their internal suppliers and customers, to take the time to visually discuss how effective a workflow is: where it doesn’t work, where it could work better, how to improve it and where technology fails the process. Most process failures typically fail at the handoff between functional groups and their interfaces with technology. In every project we do, we hear people say, “I didn’t know you needed that”, or “We can fix this now”.  It is not uncommon to have dozens of fixes for process problems during the first few meetings – sometimes paying for the entire project the first day.

Here are some reasons why the Brown Paper Exercise works so well:

  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.
  7. No special skills are required for the participants.

These facts would tend to explain 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.

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, the negative impact they have on upstream or downstream organizations and workflows, or how to fix workflow 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.

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 in our consulting work.

Some business processes can have hundreds or thousands of steps.  The brown paper exercise results of 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 many weeks to generate with people from 4 different countries. 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 improvement opportunities (Red-ops) and 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 to workflow changes. This project generated $15M in annual cost reductions for the client and we have seen these types of results in multiple projects.

Once 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, what needs to be fixed is clearly understood by everyone including management and supporting staff. When process owners are involved (especially millennials) they feel heard and relish in being part of the solutions. 

In one recent “Quote to Cash” Brown Paper Exercise, done over a 4 day period for a $25M manufacturer, we identified 160 Red-ops, many of which were fixed immediately. A lot of the Red-ops couldn’t justify projects on their own, but when aggregated together, we identified two projects that the team estimated would improve internal productivity by over 30%. The exuberance was palpable.

A word of caution: The facilitator of the “Brown Paper Exercise” is critical to its success. The facilitator must work with the team to make sure they stay focused on the objectives of the exercise and has the ability to lead the team in aggregating all inputs into a series of improvement recommendations that fix gaps in the current process and positions that process to support the future needs of the company:  Its Most Important Goal and its strategic objectives. This requires the facilitator to have a good grasp of process reengineering, leveraging technology, organizational requirements and project development. This last step is where the significant improvements can be found.

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For complex projects, the Brown Paper Exercise is an important tool for Value Stream Mapping which takes the analysis to the next level. We take the results of the Brown Paper Exercise and turn them into a series of detailed Value Stream Maps for workflows and systems similar to the one shown below where we can do modeling and calculations of wait times, lead times, identify shadow systems, show improvement opportunities (Red-ops) and other critical information that is required for larger process redesign projects. As you can see it is quite busy, but it shows how various processes and activities work together or against each other across the business 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 which is why the Brown Paper Exercise is so valuable. It is also difficult and time intensive to create this document in a group setting and bores everyone quickly. This is a tool that requires a well-trained facilitator.

When making improvement recommendations, we use the Business Hierarchy of Needs®, Group50’s change management and strategic planning framework, as our guide. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

It helps teams stay focused on the company’s Most Important Goal, its strategic objectives, organizational needs such as structure and skillsets as well as other implementation requirements. It helps address change management and continuous improvement. As a result, members of your organization will be more willing to embrace the required changes in their workflows. Management will better understand the needs of the improvement recommendations and will be more willing to support those recommendations with funding and additional resources. So, if management chooses to ignore these needs, just be aware that they increase the likelihood that implementing change will be much tougher, lowering your ROI and disenfranchising members of the organization.

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, improving engagement and job satisfaction.
  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 identified the problems and own the solutions.
  5. The team becomes accountable to the improvement recommendations.
  6. It’s fun.
  7. It is a critical part of the change management process.
  8. It causes senior management to be supportive of recommended changes in people, process and technology.
  9. Significantly increases the probability of success.

During our engagements we make sure that the participants have the tools and skills necessary to carry on with additional projects on their own, significantly increasing the ROI for the initial consulting engagement. That is our commitment to our clients.  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.

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About the Author:  Jim Gitney is the CEO and Founder of Group50® Consulting, and the author of “Strategy Realized – The Business Hierarchy of Needs®” which summarizes a framework for applying Value Stream Mapping and the Brown Paper Exercise successfully (You can find out more about the book and acquire a copy by clicking on the image to the right). Founded in 2004, Group50®consulting is focused on working with middle market companies to significantly improve their productivity by leveraging peopleprocess and technology as part of a company’s strategic plan. Business process improvement and process reengineering are Group50® specialties. Group50® consists of consultants who have spent their careers in corporate America learning how to optimize businesses.  We specialize in working with senior leaders to develop and implement programs that leverage people, process and technology to optimize business performance.

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This entry was posted in Business Hierarchy of Needs®, Continuous Improvement, Healthcare, Manufacturing and Distribution, Organizational Development, Strategy 5.0, Supply Chain Optimization, Value stream mapping, on February 16, 2022

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