Managing and Measuring Flow

Manage Kanban Flow

What is flow?

In the project management context, flow is how an item, information, or piece of work, moves through a business process. It’s the way it navigates various departments or moves across the production floor. It is not so much the repeatable route work takes, but the one time experience of an item traveling through the process. Does an item move through all departments unencumbered, or does it suffer interruptions along the way?

A common manifestation of this phenomenon is the frustrating starting and stopping work on an engaging task several times a day. This can be exhausting! The frustration stems directly from people having their flow interrupted.

The first Kanban principle, visualizing the workflow, shows how an item moves through a process. The second principle, limiting work in progress, ensures that team members are not slowing down the process, nor creating waste. Managing and measuring the flow is the act of analyzing exactly how smoothly these two principles are impacting your organization, and looking at ways to improve them.

How is flow measured?

Daily Stand-ups

During these short meetings, your team members view the Kanban board and observe how work moves from one stage to another - they analyze flow. It helps the team notice how long it takes for an item to move from one column to another, to check if similar items take a similar time to get done, or by how much it varies. Once you pay attention to whether items pause, or get stuck in certain areas longer than others, and why - you can start thinking of what can be done to change that?

A fundamental truth about flow is that it’s not how fast an item moves through to a particular point, but how smoothly it moves from start to finish, that counts. Just like with rush hour traffic - it’s not important how fast your car travels over a short portion of the journey, what counts is your average speed over the length of the route. The more items flow stably across the process, the more predictable your results will become. And the better you can deliver on promises to your clients, the happier they will be.

The focus of a dedicated Kanban stand-up session is the “anybody blocked” question - followed by “how can we help you?”. In other words, team members are looking for ways to improve flow. It ensures that everyone comes up with ideas and that you leverage the team’s collective brainpower, building unity, and a sense of empowerment within your organization.

Cumulative Flow Diagram

This metric shows us the quantity of work in progress at each stage in the system. The smoothness of the CFD expresses how evenly and predictably your company operates. You should pay attention to how many items are blocked, and how quickly these bottlenecks are being resolved. What’s the length of time that it takes for items to move from one side to another - and, on average, are these times decreasing? Measuring and managing flow is done to decrease overall production time and to decrease variation, so that outcome predictability and performance are improved.

Cumulative Flow Diagram

Lead & Cycle Time

It concentrates on a comparison between the time items spend in the process on a whole - the lead time, to the time they are actively being worked on - cycle time. Measurement of these 2 informs you of the process throughput: the time it takes to produce results.

Lead and Cycle Time

Resolving bad practices

Example Imagine a memo arriving from a CEO’s office for a specific item in the process to be expedited, as it’s a critically important request from an important client, saying it needs doing ASAP and at whatever cost. The problem is, that there is often no measurement of the cost this exercise will have for the company. Measuring flow will highlight the impact of such proceeding, and show the knock-on effect. Leaders and the team will be able to see how other items get halted, and how much longer they will take to get completed because time was taken out to focus on the CEO’s pet project. Being able to show the CEO this data could prevent them from “expediting issues” in the future.

Engaging in flow management will increase your chances of improving the overall process, instead of fire-fighting at the cost of skewing the entire operation. It will also mature your process and help you understand that it is of less importance whether a project is “on-time”, or if a specific plan has been followed. What matters more, is that the entire system is predictable and functioning as intended. That will let you focus on being a flexible and Agile company with clear goals. One, that is continuously improving and where your employees experience joy in their work.