Lean Toolbox: Current State, Ideal State, and Future State

Let’s step away from the election season of 2016 and take a look at some states that have no electoral votes.

Current State

What it is:

Current State is how you describe the process you have right now. And not just the problems you have with that process, but all the other steps and actions involved too. And while we’re at it, let’s identify what the role is of the person that performs each step, because even if it is poor Jane that always cleans the chamber pots, even Jane is allowed a vacation or illness every fortnight or so. Getting the picture? Good, because a Current State is actually best done as a map; more specifically a collection of boxes and lines and other shapes; depicting tasks, decisions, sequence, role performing, issues, alternatives, loops, and other verbs, nouns, and adverbs. And after you get that done, or even while you’re doing it, you identify some or all of the problems you encounter while you’re doing that process.

When to use it:

You start to do one of these things when you finally want to get serious about that thing that keeps happening and really bugs you or someone else or might even hurt somebody someday, by golly. Because when you simply start doing something different without thinking about how it will affect anyone else or the rest of a process, your coworkers start putting shaving cream in your mittens. So come on, attack this problem like a grown-up: draw a picture!

How to use it:

Think verbs. Each step in a process is either something done or a decision about something to be done.

  • The steps each get their own box.
  • The decisions a diamond.
  • Problems get brightly colored post-its or marker colors.
  • Draw arrowed lines between the boxes to show sequence.

You can do this mapping on paper (we like big sheets that stick on walls, with post-it notes for the steps), or on whiteboards or chalkboards, or in fancy software, but paper and markers are pretty cheap and have a really small learning curve compared to software.

Who should use it:

This sounds ridiculously easy, right? The tools are simple, the words are basic. All you need is experience and honesty. But the best Current State maps are also Pluralist and Democratic—sorry, those snuck in. What you find when you gather all the people that do a process or are affected by it is that people do it differently. The fact that people do things differently is good and bad: innovations can come from seeing things differently or converging on the people who do something best, but more often this helps explain why the chili always tastes weird when Larry cooks it. So usually you will use this to find out how many different ways people are doing the same thing.

And here is a real example, from the battleground state of a grass-roots, honest-to-goodness process improvement project. See? No, you can’t read it. But if it was your own, you could! Tempting, isn’t it?


This is a pretty, software-done version (built from a paper wall map) and depicted as a special kind of process map called a Value Stream map, but that is an article for another time. Check out the problems! It’s like Batman punched them onto the map! KaBoom!


More to come:

Ideal State

What it is: Imagine you are queen/king for the day to create the “Ideal” Ideal State map.

Future State

What it is: This is going to get you closer to that Ideal State than you are in the Current State.

Contact randy-fry@uiowa.edu with questions.


Lean Health Care Panel and Tour at UI Hospitals and Clinics on Sept. 15