It’s all about the flow

This is our 5th post in our look at the Kanban Method Values, and today we are talking about Flow.

Not just the type of flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about in his TED Talk on Happiness also like the flow a physics and engineering Professor would rap about fluid dynamics and finally the flow of value.

Managing the flow through your Kanban system is one of the most critical aspects of the overall system.

Without flow, you have nothing!

Without flow, your customers receive no value.

Without flow, at best you are standing still, at worse going backwards.

If you don’t manage the flow of work into a system overburdened it, like traffic clogging a freeway, and nothing gets done. Flow management allows your Kanban system to be smooth and predictable. This smooth and predictable flow is what helps you deliver the value and quality to your customers while managing their expectations and service level agreements. Flow and customer focus are closely related as they help deliver the value.

So how do you manage flow?

Using many of the items we have discussed before – WIP Limits, Policies, Pull vs Push, Cost of Delay and Visual Boards. You need to start to look at your work as a flow of value, not discrete work items.

WIP Limits help ensure the team are not overwhelmed with work and can focus on one task at a time. Something we haven’t explored yet is a WIP Limit forces the team to ensure we don’t have partially completed work in the system. Partially completed work is wasteful, in that you’ve done work but not delivered value and that effort could have been spent on work that is completed and delivered to the customer.

Policies, like WIP Limits, help smooth the work coming into the system and leaving the system. A policy around when work is ready to enter a stage ensures only work that can be completed, Done, gets pulled into the stage.

Another critical item to managing flow is understanding the different types of work that comes into the system. Most of the time, you will be working with the business as usual regular items. But we all know urgent, last-minute items always appear – why on a Friday I don’t know. You need to build a process to handle work items with fixed delivery dates, urgent dates and the like. Having the system set up ahead of time for this means the team can adapt as required.

The concept of Pull vs Push helps manage flow. Only pulling work into the “Doing” column when the team has capacity ensures we don’t end up with partially completed work. Pulling work allows the team to manage their capacity without a manager telling, pushing, what to do next. Allowing individuals work independently in a self directed manner.

Finally, the visual aspect of the Kanban board allows the entire team, and others, to see the flow of the teams work. The team get to move their work from start to finish. Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who found incomplete tasks were easier to remember than compete ones, so make a ceremony out of moving items to Done so they are remembered! This physical process of moving work items provides a level of satisfaction not found in digital tools.

Smooth and predictable flow adds something else to the team. It removes stress, and it allows the employees to focus on their work without interruption due to last-minute urgent work. And if there are last-minute urgent work items as we’ve cover the system is built to handle these to flow through in an expedited manner.

The flow that allows focus creates the environment Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about meaning your employees find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities they are doing. Once again, this drives their happiness and their overall engagement.

How do you manage the daily flow of your work?

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