Flow as a Lean Agile Lens
Getting work to work
In Lean there is Mura, the waste of unevenness.
It’s probably the most important, but also most overlooked, in the waste theatre.
For knowledge work, unnevenness primarily interrupts flow. It’s when you have work that you should do easily, but you don’t. There is this mura lying around that makes things harder than they need to be.
And most of this mura, we create ourselves. Unnecessary rules, needless decision making centralization, or simply not getting together and figuring out how we do things. So each professional on the team does predictable things in a slightly different way … making the predictable arbitrary.
Now, here’s the thing. We have three kinds of flow:
- operational flow (the flow of work),
- information flow (the flow of possibilities),
- and psychological flow (the flow of our own creativity and focus).
If our aim is to create great product with an unhindered team, it is our job to make sure that all three kinds of flow happen to the best extent possible. We do this primarily by removing obstacles and increasing opportunities for professionalism.
This causes us to confront the double-edged sword of something Lean calls “standard work.”
Standard Work is a Gift:
When we don’t define our standard work, we get stuck doing routine things. It is important to figure out what our standard work is and how to lower the unknowns or variation in doing it. This opens our time to be able to focus on non-standard work…which is plentiful and necessary in knowledge work.
Standard Work is a Drug:
When we over-standardize our work, we inhibit flow by unnecessary rules and regulations. As commonly practiced, both Agile and Lean practitioners tend to over-standardize. Agile practices set rote time limits on planning periods, enforce regular meetings, and ignore the true cadences (or lack thereof) of the work they are engaged in.
In Lean the drive to standardize work and drive out variation often comes at the expense of discovery, innovation, and growth. The use of a limited tool set and a hyper-focus on Toyota process often ignores the ample process innovations that can happen at any specific and unique company.
Using Flow as a Lens
The idea of flow starts with the goal of the reduction of Mura. But that’s jargon…
Better flow is achieved by
to how we work,
how we learn, and
how we achieve professional satisfaction.
That simultaneously obvious, intense, and rarely even attempted.
It’s easy to use a tool or engage in someone else’s ideas. It’s much more difficult to step back, look at your own work and culture, and commit to optimizing them yourself.
Ironically, this is what both Lean and Agile preach. It is the essence of both.
About Jim Benson
Jim Benson is an award-winning Lean and Agile systems designer. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and Lean Coffee. He is the co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile.
He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.