Overview of Value Stream Mapping Symbols

Speed Limit Signs
Different symbols for the same thing …

Value stream maps are usually drawn using standardized symbols…or that is what most people believe. While there are some symbols that are used pretty much universally, other elements have different symbols in different organizations or by different sources. Other identical symbols are used in a different way by different organizations. And, every day people seem to invent new symbols. In this post I will (try to) give an overview of what is out there, along with my opinion on what I use frequently and what I usually avoid.

The Symbols

Since the material and information flow is represented in symbols, we need different symbols to show the flow. A few of them are used almost universally across industry. However, many symbols have lots of variants and small differences that are either interpreted differently or not used at all in other organizations. I will try to give you an overview of the different symbols, with some (personal) preferences.

This list is also by no means complete. If you do VSM, you will sooner or later come to a point when it will be difficult to represent the VSM using the existing symbols. In this case, many organizations invent “new” symbols. For the sake of clarity, I prefer to stick to common symbols and write a small note next to it. Symbols I use frequently have a white background. Less frequently used variants have a gray background. You can also download a PowerPoint file with an overview of VSM symbols for you to use, although I recommend doing it by hand on paper.


vsm Basic ProcessThis is the most basic process box. Merely a box and a name within it. While it is sometimes frowned upon by other lean experts, I use it quite frequently when I do not need more detailed information for my processes. Sometimes these boxes are also shaded if they are shared with other value streams. In another version shading could also stand for rework processes, and shared processes have a double cross hatching. Some practitioners also use a triangle for batch processes, an U for one piece flow, or a second box around it for parallel processes. The possibilities are endless, there is no standard.
vsm Process and DataOptionally, you can add data into the box. The data depends on your needs but may include cycle times, changeover times, number of workers at the machine, number of machines (if this box represents multiple boxes in parallel), number of shifts, defect rates, and whatever you think you need. I have even seen the CO2 footprint of a machine in a value stream.
vsm Control Center For data management processes as, for example, the central MRP or logistics system, a slightly different box is sometimes used (although you may as well use the normal process box from above).
vsm CustomerSlightly different boxes are used for customers. The image represents a typical saw-tooth roof of many industry buildings. This customer can be both external or internal, but is the end point of the value stream you look at. Usually there is only one customer shown, but you may have more than one.
vsm SupplierSuppliers are similar to customers, except that they are the input into your value stream. Again, you should have at least one, but you can have more.
vsm PersonThis image represents a worker or a person. In a value stream map it is rarely used, as the info is usually contained in the info box, if needed at all. However, this image is frequently used for layout purposes.


vsm Inventory BasicThis triangle with an “I” for inventory is the image of a basic uncontrolled inventory (i.e., an inventory that has no fixed upper limit). You can write the inventory observed below, but this depends on why you do a value stream. If you need the number, write it down. If not, just draw the triangle. Some companies draw these in red to indicate that this is not a good way to handle stock.
vsm Inventory RotherThis is a small variation of the inventory above. This is the type originally shown in Learning to See, but I am usually fine with not adding the two bars on top and below.
vsm Inventory MIFAThe meaning of this symbol is the same as above. This one is used by Toyota for their material and information flow analysis (MIFA). Depending on your interpretation, it represents a pile of material or a normal distribution. Except for the different design, the meaning is identical as above.
vsm FIFO BasicA FiFo lane. Some companies make them in green to indicate that a FiFo is generally a good way to store material. You can write either the maximum capacity, the current capacity, or both below the FiFo lane.
vsm FIFO DetailAn alternative version of the FiFo lane as originally envisioned by Learning to See, although for me it is usually too much effort to draw and write the additional information. However, the arrow in the FiFo is a good reminder that the material flow through the FiFo also contains an information flow too!
vsm SupermarketSymbol for a supermarket (i.e., the end point of a kanban loop). For a supermarket to be complete, an information flow has to come out of it and bring a kanban back to one of the preceding processes or transports.
vsm Safety StockThis symbol is sometimes used for safety stock, although it is not too common in my experience.
vsm Safety Stock option 2Another version of the safety stock, using a similar triangle as above. Similar icons with an X instead of an S are also sometimes used as a blocked stock that cannot be used.
vsm Cross DockA cross dock where material is rearranged from inbound or for outbound shipments.

Material Flow

vsm PUSHA push arrow, representing a material flow that is not controlled by a pull system (i.e., a cap on WIP). It is often found in combination with the inventory triangles above. I personally hate this symbol. It is a pain to draw it by hand (but maybe this is intentional so you create a pull system in order to avoid the drawing by hand 🙂 ). In any case, I usually use a simple arrow similar to the manual data flow below instead.
vsm To CustomerSimilar to the push arrow but representing a transport to the customer or from the supplier. Also generally called a shipment icon.
Sequenced Pull BallThis is a sequenced pull ball. It is part of the original set of symbols in “Learning to See”. It is used as a sort of kanban for a supplying system that can produce the parts needed in a short period of time. This fast “just in time” production does not need a supermarket. The symbol originates in colored golf balls used as kanban signals. Can be useful, but is little known and I have not yet seen it in a real value stream.
vsm Part WithdrawalA parts withdrawal symbol. This represents a pull system and is usually found after a supermarket.
vsm TruckAn icon for transport by truck. It is usually combined with the white push arrow from above, although I rarely use it.
vsm Milk RunA milk run representing a cyclical transport of material.
vsm ForkliftA fork lift (sort of). More similar icons for airplanes and other things can easily be invented.

Information Flow

vsm KanbanA symbol for a Kanban card. This is usually drawn on top of the information flow going back from a supermarket to a preceding process or transport. Technically speaking, a white card indicates only a production kanban, although I do not make this distinction.
vsm Product Instruction Kanban MIFAAlternative MIFA symbol for a production kanban.
vsm Withdawal kanbanSymbol for a withdrawal kanban that does not start reproduction but merely takes the material out of a preceding inventory. I find this redundant, as the end point of a normal white kanban tells me where the material came from. Hence I skip the shading. Some companies also use different colors for production and withdrawal kanbans.
vsm Part Withdrawal Kanban MIFAAlternative MIFA symbol for a withdrawal kanban.
vsm Batch of KanbanSymbol for kanban arriving in batches. I usually do not use this symbol and prefer to use a single kanban and make a small note in or on top of it.
vsm Signal KanbanA triangle kanban, which is a special type of kanban system with only one kanban. Loosely similar to reordering points of Economic Ordering Quantity. I have rarely seen this used, and I don’t use it myself on VSM, although I find triangle kanbans in general quite useful.
vsm Kanban PostBox for collecting kanban (Learning to See calls this a kanban post). It is usually near a supermarket and indicates that kanbans are collected and picked up only periodically. I have used it sometimes, but only when the information flow needed this detail.
vsm LevelingLoad leveling, or more generally, leveling. It is part of the information flow in a kanban loop.
vsm Heijunka Box MIFA Heijunka board, or leveling board. This is not part of the set in Learning to See, but rather in MIFA. Yet it fulfills a very similar function, although I rarely see it.
vsm Manual information FlowThis arrow indicates a manual information flow. Can be combined with text on the type of information.
vsm Digital Information FlowThis arrow indicates a digital information flow. However, I usually simply use the manual information flow for everything, unless it is critical that the flow is digital.

Other Symbols

vsm Go SeeThese”go and see”  goggles indicate an observation as part of the information flow. For example, if a supervisor checks the inventory and then decides what to produce next. Usually too many goggles are not a good sign, as they indicate an unstructured firefighting type of manufacturing.
vsm DocumentRarely used symbol for a document.
vsm ProblemSymbol used to indicate problems and trouble spots identified on the value stream.
vsm Info IdeaSymbol used to indicate a solution, idea, or improvement suggestion.
vsm TimelineTimeline below the value stream, used to calculate the percentage of the time in value add. Usually the “troughs” are waiting  times, and the “hills” are processing times. In most value stream, I find this not necessary, but sometimes it is useful. The length of the symbol depends on the number of processes above, with one “dent” in the line per process.

On the Symbols…

As you have seen, there are tons of different symbols. Often, there are different symbols for the same thing, depending on which organization you are in. Many of them are also a pain to draw (e.g., the push arrows or all of these truck symbols). At other times, you will find that these symbols are insufficient to express the details of your value stream and you are lacking some symbols that you need to describe your system.

While the above symbols look like a worldwide standard, they are not. I often find lots of gaps, redundancies (push arrow and unstructured inventory), and uncertainties on how to draw them exactly. Often my colleagues and I have different opinions, eventually coming to the conclusion that “both are possible.” In any case, pretty much any value stream drawn needs to be understood only by the team that is working with the improvement. For everybody else, especially higher up, they are just eye candy.

Hence, feel free to adjust, skip, or modify the above symbols to fit your need. It’s not like primary school where Miss Krabappel grades you on your spelling. I usually stick to a basic set of symbols (the ones above that are not grayed out). I mostly skip or ignore the others, because I often don’t need them, don’t like them, and find that they can confuse others on the team.

I also often find the existing symbols lacking. Every now and then I come across a situation that I cannot represent to my satisfaction using the existing symbols. I urge you to resist inventing new symbols; we already have more than enough. If anything, write a small text on the document explaining what you want to do. Nevertheless, the set of symbols sometimes feels incomplete or inadequate. Am I the only one, or did you sometimes have this feeling too? Let me know.


These above are also only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other sets of symbols out there – for example, for flow diagrams and layouts, many of which are surely used somewhere in value stream maps.

This post is part of a small series on value stream mapping, with more posts on When to Do Value Stream Maps (and When Not!)Basics of Value Stream Maps, and Practical Tips for Value Stream Mapping.

In any case, the value stream map can be a great help with some problems but a burden if they are done without proper purpose. Do what is necessary, but don’t over-complicate the things to organize your industry!

7 thoughts on “Overview of Value Stream Mapping Symbols

  1. Very useful.
    As always with humans, most things get more complicated with time – including VSM. Ideally, things should get simpler and easier to implement.
    Alas, there seems to be no organization (similar to ISO) which could standardize VSM symbols.
    My area of speciality is VSM in development. In this newer area, symbols used are fewer and easy to understand – fortunately.

  2. I can understand different symbols for different areas, however, why would one want complexity over simplicity ?

  3. Hi Melissa, the different symbols are not for different areas, I just tried to get a grasp on how the same idea is expressed using different symbols in different organizations. For example there are different symbols for kanban cards. Within one organization only one symbol is used, but another organization may use another symbol.

    I totally agree with the simplicity, my advice is to keep it simple and stick to a few symbols. My preference is above without a gray background.

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