Managing and Measuring Flow

Manage Kanban Flow

Although visualizing the workflow and limiting work in progress are aspects of Kanban critical to success, the fundamental principle of measuring and managing flow is probably the one that generates the most joy in practitioners, and the most change it team members’ activities.

What is flow?

Flow is the manner in which 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 travelling through the process. Did the item move through all departments unencumbered, or did it suffer numerous interruptions along the way?

Let’s consider a common manifestation of this phenomenon, to better explain it: have you ever experienced the frustration of starting and stopping a number of things in one day? This can be exhausting! Now, think about a week or a month of constant interruptions like this. Most project managers have had team members, coming to a point of crying out “Can people just stop interrupting me while I try to do my work!”. All this stems from people not experiencing flow.

Levels of frustration are often directly linked to the number of times we hit roadblocks or interruptions along our way. The first Kanban principle, visualizing the workflow, shows you how an item moves through an organization. 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 analyzing exactly how smoothly these two principles are impacting your organization and looking at ways to improve them.

What’s important to understand here, is that your company consists of living and breathing human beings. This is crucial, because flow is not only important to an organization, but also to the very people who live within them. Artists and sportsmen often experience being in a state of flow, where they move effortlessly from one action to another, with complete concentration on their tasks, while keeping their clear goals and rewards in mind. A psychologist Mihaly Csikszenth has coined this thinking into a term of Flow Theory, wherein people can exist in a euphoric state of flow. Believers in this approach encourage people to work at places that fuel passion, rather than simply pay the most.

When is flow achieved and what does it teach us?

It’s been generally observed, that among other factors, flow is achieved when people are completely immersed in a meaningful task, and also are keenly aware of the needs of people around them. Interestingly - this is often the consequence of a high performing team applying Kanban! The practice of managing and measuring flow will help you to achieve flow.

Measuring and analyzing flow

A daily stand-up, during which team members view the Kanban board and observe how work moves from one stage to another, is an activity focused on measuring and analyzing flow. You observe a number of things on the board at once, and become aware of your team-mates around you. You notice how long it takes for an item to move from one column to another, you check if similar items take the same time, or by how much it varies. You pay attention to whether items pause, or get stuck in certain areas longer than others, and why. What can be done to unblock it?

As you analyze these trends, you start to understand a fundamental truth. It’s not how fast an item moves through to a particular point, but how smoothly and item moves from start to finish that counts. Just like with rush hour traffic or roadworks on a highway - 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 in a stable manner across the process, the more predictable your results will become, and the better you can fulfill on promises to your clients, the happier your clients will be.

The focus of a dedicated Kanban standup session is the “anybody blocked”? question - along with “what can we do to help unblock you”. This provides a great source of unity in a company, everyone working together to make sure the goal is reached. Just imagine if one week you are approached by the head of another department, who tells you they’ve observed how things they do cause interruptions for your team, and they have decided to work with you, so that your workload becomes smoother. Talk about building company morale, news like this might just make your year!

Events like this do happen, when team members and their leaders observe the board and determine what they can do to improve the flow. This is very powerful, as it ensures that everyone is coming up with ideas that count, and that you’re truly leveraging the company’s collective brain power. Kanban’s measuring and managing flow helps greatly with building unity and a sense of empowerment within your organization.

Metrics of flow

There are a number of metrics that companies can look at. Kanban practitioners often use a Cumulative Flow Diagram. Better than others, 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 increased.

Cumulative Flow Diagram

Resolving bad practices

It’s not uncommon for a memo to arrive from a CEO’s office for a specific item in the process to be expedited, as it’s a critically important request from your most important client, that needs doing ASAP and at whatever cost. The problem often is, that there is no measurement of the cost this exercise will have for the entire company. Measuring and managing flow will highlight the impact of such proceedings, and show the knock on effect. Leaders and the team will be able to see how other items were halted, and how much longer they will now 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 might prevent them from “expediting issues” in the future. Measuring and managing flow will allow you to get better at improving your overall process, instead of firefighting at the cost of skewing the entire operation.

Measuring and managing your flow will 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. You should 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. That is the goal and focus of managing and measuring flow.