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Kevin Meyer


The Other Flow of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

Flow happens when the skill level and challenge environment are high

Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 16:12

Those of us in the lean world are accustomed to discussing "flow"—where work is performed in an even manner to reduce mura or lack of regularity, one of the three forms of waste. Activities are synchronized, layouts are optimized, resources are available exactly where and when they are needed, and the pace is set by true demand. The operation just hums along creating value for the customer. Well, "just" is a bit of a misnomer as we know how difficult achieving flow can be.

I remember being introduced to the work of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi decades ago in a psychology class, and have recently become reacquainted with him while researching motivation and productivity. Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist of Hungarian decent and a professor at Claremont, has also developed a theory of flow from an individual perspective—see his TED Talk.

Different than lean flow? Or maybe not?

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

Csíkszentmihályi's concept of flow involves being completely absorbed by what you are doing, energized, and with the creative juices flowing. Many of us already think of this as "being in the zone." It's truly a positive, invigorating experience, as opposed to "hyperfocus" which can be negative.

He began researching the concept out of fascination for artists and other professionals who become so engrossed in their work that they forget about all else, sometimes including basic needs. As the model below shows, flow happens when the skill level and challenge environment are high. The ability to be creative and accomplished in such a situation is very fulfilling.

Csíkszentmihályi once described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Flow has parallels with concepts in Eastern religions and philosophy. Buddhism talks about "action with inaction" and Taoism has "doing without doing." The Hindu Ashtavakra Gita and Bhagavad-Gita have similar descriptions.

Components of flow include a challenge/skill balance, the merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task, transformation of time, and the autotelic experience. Csíkszentmihályi dove deeper into the autotelic personality, which is when people do work because it's intrinsically rewarding instead of to obtain external goals. Aspects of the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility.

So is it really different than the concept of flow in lean? Completely involved, every action following inevitably from the previous, using skills to the utmost, clarity of goals, immediate feedback, curiosity, humility. Sounds like a finely tuned work cell.

Well, funny we should stumble on that comparison. Csíkszentmihályi did go on to research "group flow," where both individuals as well as the group are able to achieve flow, with the characteristics being:
• Creative spatial arrangements: chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables, thus work primarily standing and moving
• Playground design: charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness, safe place, result wall, open topics
• Parallel, organized working
• Target group focus
• Experimentation and prototyping
• Increase in efficiency through visualization
• Using differences among participants as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle

Add visual controls, open and transparent communication, and experimentation to the similarities with lean.

Maybe this reminds us of one of the reasons lean work cells work—the creation of fulfilling, productive, and improved operations by leveraging and rewarding the brains of humans.

First published March 11, 2016, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.