April 9, 2015

Managing Flow

My next blog post is about “Managing Flow”. So many organisations I work with have benefited from using this technique to improve how they do what they do. I also felt it timely, since this is a key practice in Kanban, and Klaus Leopold will be coming to SA in May to provide two awesome two day courses on Kanban fundamentals, and scaling.

Traditional project management teaches us to manage resources and dependencies. Making sure everyone is busy is important because our plan is based on people optimisation and cost accounting. Managing flow in Kanban is the opposite of this and therefore often counter-intuitive.

Managing flow is a principle of Kanban and is about shifting the focus from the people to the work. So instead of managing people and keeping them busy all the time, we focus on managing the work and understanding how we get that work through the system faster.

The distinction is very important.

How do you manage flow?


Well the first step to managing flow is to understand where all the work in the system (by system I mean a human system designed to deliver value to the business) is. You need to visualise the value stream, and then visualise all the work in that value stream. Your value stream is the flow of work through your system, from concept to cash or beginning to end. This often depends on the level of granularity of your Kanban system. A good way to do this is to use a physical board, and to map your process from beginning to end. How does work flow into your system and how does it leave.

Limit WIP

Once you have the visualisation of where the work is, you need to begin to limit the amount of work in progress. Why would you want to do that I hear you ask?

There are many reasons to limit work in progress:

  • Create focus and prevent context switching: The more work there is in a system, the less focus any piece of work is getting. Context switching has a massive transaction cost and means that any single piece of work can end up taking longer than if there was focus around getting it done.

  • Decrease batch size:  Smaller batches mean faster feedback and shorter lead times.

  • Decrease complexity: The more work there is in a system the more complexity there is. Things that are deployed on the test environment affect each other. You need to manage all the dependencies that are created and the communication efforts of many more people. This all adds complexity and the higher the complexity the greater the risk.

  • Enable flow: The more work there is in a system, the more it will look like rush hour traffic and the less flow there will be. At 5:00pm in Sandton all the buildings in a four block area empty at the same time. The result of this is that the road infrastructure can’t handle the capacity and the roads become blocked and gridlocked. The same happens in software teams, and human systems when they have too much work in progress. By limiting the work in progress you can enable much better flow of work through the system.

Show blockages

Focusing on where the work is in a system, can help us have better conversations about which piece of work is the most important and where we need to spend our energy. It can also help us to see what is getting stuck. When something is stuck we want to visualise that. We want to understand first of all why it is stuck and second of all we want to make sure that our energy is focused on getting it unstuck. The tendency in systems designed for people optimisation is that the person whose current task is blocked by others will simply start on the next piece of work. The problem with this is that often the work item that is stuck is far more valuable than the next work item. Another impact of this behaviour, is that the ‘blocker’ gets moved into the background and forgotten about. It’s easy to forget things like that when there are another hundred other items right behind the one that’s stuck. This also means that when the work becomes unstuck it ends up in a queue, and each queue will have an impact on lead times.

Continuous Improvement

Having the visualisation, the limited WIP and the blockages visible, will give you large amounts of information about how your system works and what is in the way of getting things done. This is now a great starting point for conversations on how your system and processes can be improved and what can be done to better enable the flow of work. Talking about the work and managing the work through the system, means that we are focused on delivering value faster rather than on keeping people busy.

Keeping people busy can lead to longer queues, larger batches, more complexity and longer lead times. Managing flow will create focus on delivering value faster, and uncovering the challenges that get in the way.

If you want to know more about this have a look at http://www.klausleopold.com/.

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Joanne Perold

Agile Coach in South Africa. Explorer, learner, experiencer, part time philosopher, working with teams and organisations to be more agile.
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Joanne Perold

Agile Coach in South Africa. Explorer, learner, experiencer, part time philosopher, working with teams and organisations to be more agile.

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