This month we will continue our discussion on the CI Framework. Once we have Roles and Responsibilities established and we have Team Governance in place to lock in those standard expectations then we can start managing the flow of the process. Let’s first talk about the meaning of the word “flow.”
“Being in the zone” “The flow state of mind” These modern phrases are used to express completing a large amount of high-quality work because your mind is focused on the task at hand. The phrases sound good because they are good. I read about flow for the first time in Lean Thinking, by Jim Womack and Daniel Jones. The book discusses the principles of lean. Creating and controlling flow and workflow management is an important part of the Continuous Improvement Framework. It is a simple concept, but hard to create in practice.
The most practical imagery I can provide for flow (or actually a lack of flow) is the classic “I love Lucy” episode (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkQ58I53mjk) where Lucy and her friend are working on an assembly line. The chocolate is produced, the chocolate gets wrapped, the chocolate goes into a box. Smooth consistent flow, no stops, no disruptions, it starts and keeps moving to the finish. When this occurs at a manageable pace continuously and without distraction we have an efficient and well-run system. The concept is widely practiced in manufacturing and we have been working to perfect it for decades. Tools and techniques such as conveyor belts, team pods, work cells, or takt time are employed to create this flow. Today, we continue to enhance this with automation and improved information flows.
For Workflow Management we need tangible structures that control the work that we do. Structures like work instructions, training materials, planning tools, databases, routing sheets, and workflow systems. Flow is the result of how the work is controlled. Does it drop in on the organization haphazardly with different demands, different activities required, different times of the day or is it balanced, predictable, and organized. Can we work a task smoothly from start to finish or do we have to pull work offline and out of sequence like the “I Love Lucy” video. The design of the process will either support this or inhibit flow.
Controlling knowledge work is more difficult. There is still much to learn. Think about someone doing order entry, sales, software development, etc. What is flowing exactly and what are the barriers? We have all experienced some of these. We start working on a task and “buzz” here comes a text message from the boss. We submit a reply and go back to our work and “bling” an email comes in for us to check in the inbox (check out Michael Hoffman’s guest article on this topic: https://www.chalmersst.com/study-reveals-how-many-times-you-should-check-your-e-mail/ ). We go back to work and “alert” this time it’s a one-hour meeting on the work that you have been trying to complete for the last 3 hours. Most knowledge workflow looks something like the “I love Lucy” episode.
The problem of creating good flow is the reason why Team Governance is so important. We need the team to collaborate to identify and investigate the inhibitors to flow and generate solutions together. When the team starts to see these problems, they need to be skilled in employing process improvement techniques to understand and communicate the problem. This is where process flow maps are incredibly helpful. I often tell people that the Functional Deployment map (aka swim lane map) is one of the most powerful problem-solving tools because it illustrates the two major causes of problems – decisions people have to make and handoffs between individuals. Both are inhibitors to flow and when the team can physically see these inhibitors they can begin to develop new processes and management practices to fix them.
Workflow management is about the tools, systems, supervision, and training required to manage the process and create flow. This part of our CI Framework must be deliberately designed. Workflow management requires us to study the process and design new and better solutions. The phrase I love is “The process is designed to produce exactly the level of quality and efficiency as what is observed” which means if you don’t like the results you get then the design of your process is to blame… intentional or unintentional. From robotic automation to database workflows, to training and documentation, there are many ways to produce workflow management. The key to success is that this is done in a deliberate fashion and that the team working in the system identifies the controls that will help that system flow. They own the solution.
As technology advances and the work itself changes, teams need to identify new solutions to meet the challenge. Some solutions that have grown in popularity are colocation of experts, pod structures to reduce the flow gap in the handoff between people with specialized skill sets, virtual collaboration tools to overcome geographic constraints, workflow tools to visualize and control incoming demand and smoothly route work to the next expert, process digitization through low code databases and standardized information collection, entry, and data quality.
Finally, to manage the workflow we must be able to see it. This means collecting information on what happened, when it happened, and coding it for summary and analysis. Managing happens in real-time, so summary and analysis are not enough. The solutions to create control must provide management the ability to react in real-time as well as retrospect over long periods of performance for Continuous Improvement of the standard.