Simply put, flow is the movement and delivery of customer value through a process. Not having a good grip on flow means that an organisation cannot sustainably deliver value to its customers. In short, bad workflow means a constant struggle to accomplish more and faster which results in added stress.
“People often think that workflow is about how busy people in an organisation are, how many tasks they still need to do, or are in the process of doing, but this is incorrect. Workflow is in fact a measure of how quickly a business can respond to the changing demands of their customers in a sustainable and predictable way,” says Rochelle Roos, a flow coach, trainer, and co-founder of We Do Change.
Flow is one of the six practices of Kanban, a philosophy strongly endorsed by Roos, who is on a mission to challenge existing models that focus on managing people.
“When we talk about managing flow, people wrongly assume we are referring to managing people (keeping them busy). We need to flip the narrative on its head and focus on the work, not the people,” explains Roos. “Instead of managing people it is about examining the process of value generation to customers. What are the dominant activities that customer requests need to go through? And where are the handoffs between people, teams and departments so that work is moved quickly from start to done. Flow moves the needle closer to customer satisfaction.”
According to Roos, there are five simple steps to successfully managing and improving the flow of work:
1. Choose an area not a person
Focusing on individuals or teams has the lowest impact when it comes to organisational flow. When individuals in an organisation feel that they and their workload is being managed, it can lead to undesired side-effects like experienced and knowledgeable staff wanting to leave or becoming disgruntled.
Instead, Roos suggests identifying a level of the organisation where you want to improve workflow. Remember, the higher up in the organisation, the bigger the impact of the change. Once the level has been chosen, you want to work as a team not alone, so involve the relevant people that are part of executing the process.
2. Visualise it to see it
Visualise your process,” says Roos. “The practice around visualising should provide you with a current and shared view of your “real” situations and then using data to better understand the behaviour of our flow-based system.”
We must make several big and small decisions every day. In the workplace this means working out which tasks to start, and which are more important than others. If we don’t have the right visibility on the big picture, we will be making decisions in isolation and these can have a negative ripple effect. Most often, it creates more pressure for people downstream that are forced to multi-task, which can lead to a chaotic working environment and burnout.
3. Don’t starve, but don’t overload
There is a common misperception that to be efficient, twice as many tasks need to be delivered in the same period. While we do see an increase in delivery rates in many systems over time, the focus should be on crafting smooth and predictable workflow and consciously tracking and making decisions around work waiting times and how to address that. If the workload is too much, then a prioritisation system must be put in place to help break things down and identify what task is most important.
4. Flush out time wasting
Using this visualisation, identify long queues which are impacting productivity and efficiency and flush them out. This will mean starting with a small manageable workload initially that can be completed quickly, which will lead to more even flow and therefore higher levels of predictability. The aim here is to stop starting new tasks and focus on finishing existing ones. Only then can you flush out the time wasting.
5. Measure things
Measure the time it takes from starting an item to its delivery and monitor the incoming requests or work, as well as the delivery rate of these requests, over a period – the aim is to balance customer demand with staff capacity. What you want to do is reduce the average ‘age’ of tasks in your systems (how long a task must wait before being actioned).
Where specific work items are getting too old, schedule the right conversations at the right time with the right people about how to finish them so that you are always actively measuring progress.
At We Do Change, we use data to better understand the behaviour of our flow-based systems and identify opportunities for improvement and experimental collaboration.