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Tonianne DeMaria


The Lean Brain, Part 3: Flow

You can’t step in the same river twice

Published: Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 13:02

Lean says: Manage flow. Your brain says: My work isn’t linear. My day is filled with interruptions, and so I don’t have the “luxury” of flow. What’s at play here: functional fixedness.

If there is one area where there’s not an obvious transfer of lean principles from manufacturing to knowledge work, it’s understanding how flow can in fact be achieved when work is creative and contextual rather than isolated and prefigured.

On the factory floor, workers create a fairly static set of tangible products in a predictable way, while constantly aiming to reduce variation to produce uniform output.

In the office, whether their work products are largely inventive (e.g., software development) or relatively standardized (responding to a customer service call), knowledge work is fraught with variation.

Myriad people, products, projects, processes, experience levels, and information sources (both tacit and explicit), coupled with the requests for clarity or adjustment that these constituencies make, can combine and compete to create a sometimes bewildering if not cacophonous work environment.

Confusing and noisy—yes. Wasteful? Probably not. Quite the contrary, in fact.

In knowledge work, value is created through often unplanned human interaction. Water cooler conversations, instant message exchanges, seemingly interminable and ostensibly “useless” meetings, and serendipity combine to create customer value. Indeed, oftentimes customers themselves end up contributing to this continuous conversation.

Office workers usually have multiple projects with their own constituencies, deliverables, and anomalies. This creates a “noisy” interdependent environment with a very different relationship to variation than the one that exists on the shop floor. When it comes to knowledge work, variation—i.e., change—is a constant. No two financial audits will occur the same way. No two court cases will require the same strategy. No two treatment plans will offer the same course of action.

Often this change is how an organization learns. In the office, learning is the driver of successful projects, myriad improvements, and satisfied stakeholders.

Because of this, knowledge workers’ value streams have a very short shelf life. This does not mean they have no value stream, nor does it mean that their value streams are an effort in futility. Rather, their value streams ebb and flow with the work itself. They will stabilize and allow for the creation of a project-specific value stream, but one which will always require continuous adjustment and improvement.

Therefore in knowledge work, flow comes not through relentless standardization and waste reduction, but through the continuous optimization of processes with a very short shelf life. When it comes to optimizing flow in the office, the value stream is in a perpetual state of kaizen—which will be discussed in the next section.

How to mitigate

In the office, flow is interrupted not by communication per se, but by unnecessary communication or the interruption of focus. For a person or a team, their focus is maintained when they have a single task that they are allowed to complete unimpeded.

The issue in the office is that countless tasks are being processed simultaneously, and whether they are self-imposed or external, interruptions are both frequent and inevitable. This is necessary for the organization’s learning, but it does not have to arrive chaotically. They can be batched to process similar tasks together. They can be analyzed to see where they emanate from and why. They can be scheduled. They can be be processed more thoughtfully.

Visualizing work as well as interruptions as a team allows team members to see when an interruption is least disruptive. Limiting work in progress lowers the amount of potential interruptions (less people asking for status or seeking additional information). And techniques like working meetings and Pomodoros allow staff to sequester themselves for short periods of focus.

The overall goal to achieve flow in the office rests in creating pockets of focus to allow work to achieve completion. We do not, however, want to overregulate work or stifle conversation because, althoough it is often unplanned, this type of variation is where true learning occurs.

Up next in the Lean Brain series: Push is blind. Pull is informed. See beyond the silo.

In part one of the Lean Brain series, we discussed five ways our brain can thwart lean and how to mitigate them when value is a conversation, and in part two: Visualization begets alignment.

First published on the ModusCooperandi blog.


About The Author

Tonianne DeMaria’s picture

Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne DeMaria is partner and principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, and co-founder of Modus Institute and Kaizen Camp. She is co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award-winning book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and the upcoming Why Kanban Works and Kidzban. DeMaria is passionate about the roles collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which lean thinking can facilitate these ends. She helps clients create cultures where effectiveness is valued over productivity; learning and continuous improvement is ongoing; innovation can take hold; and where healthier, fulfilling, and more integrated lives can result.