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When it comes to business success – managing workflow, not people, is key

In the business world, knowing how to successfully manage workflow or flow is key. Simply put, flow is the movement and delivery of customer value through a process. Not having a good grip on flow means that an organisation cannot sustainably deliver value to its customers. In short, bad workflow means a constant struggle to accomplish more, faster which actually results in increased stress. People often think that workflow is about how busy people in an organisation are, how many tasks they still need to do, or are in the process of doing, but this is incorrect. Workflow is in fact a measure of how quickly a business can respond to the changing demands of their customers in a sustainable and predictable way.

Flow is one of the six practices of Kanban, a philosophy I strongly believe in.

When we talk about managing flow, people wrongly assume we are referring to managing people (keeping them busy). We need to flip the narrative on its head and focus on the work (customer value), not the people. Instead of managing people it is about examining the process of value generation to customers. What are the dominant activities that customer requests need to go through? And where are the handoffs between people, teams and departments so that work can move quickly from start to done.

Here are five simple steps to assist in successfully managing and improving the flow of work:

  1. Choose an area not a person Focusing on individuals or teams has the lowest impact when it comes to organisational value delivery. When individuals in an organisation feel that they and their workload is being micro-managed, it can lead to undesired side-effects like experienced and knowledgeable staff wanting to leave or becoming disgruntled. Instead of focusing on people, we rather want to identify what of the value delivery we want to improve and where in the organisation we what to improve its workflow. Remember, the higher up in the organisation, the bigger the impact of the change. Once we have identified what we are trying to improve and where in the value delivery it is we need to involve the right people, we can not do this alone. Embarking on the change for improvement together with the people that are actually involved and part of the execution, will lead to greater success.

  2. Visualise it to see it Visualise your process! The practice around visualising should provide you and your organisation with a shared view of your current “real” situations. This will enable you to use relevant data to better understand the behaviour of your flow-based system. We are faced with big and small decisions daily and in the workplace this means working out which tasks to start, and which are more important than others. If we don't have the right visibility on the big picture, we will be making decisions in isolation and these can have a negative ripple effect. When decisions are made in isolation without end-to-end visibility more often it creates pressure for people downstream that are forced to multi-task, which can lead to a chaotic working environment and burnout.

  3. Don’t starve, but don’t overload There is a common misperception that to be efficient, twice as many tasks need to be delivered in the same period. This is not true - Focusing on flow can have a desirable side affect in increased delivery rate over time. However the true value is realised when we can create smooth, predictable workflow and consciously track and make decisions around addressing where the work/value is not flowing. For example If the workload is too much and work is idle then a prioritisation system must be put in place to help break things down and identify what task is most important to finsih next.

  4. Flush out time wasting Using your visualisation, identify long queues which are impacting productivity and efficiency and flush them out. This will mean starting with a small manageable workload initially that can be completed quickly, which will lead to more even flow and therefore higher levels of predictability. The aim here is to stop starting new tasks and focus on finishing existing ones. Starting new work costs money, finishing work makes money!

  5. Measure things Measure the time it takes from starting an item to its delivery and monitor the incoming work requests, as well as the delivery rate of these requests, over a period - the aim is to balance customer demand with staff capacity. What you want to do is reduce the average ‘age’ of tasks in your systems (how long a task must wait before being actioned to completion). Where specific work items are getting too old, your visualisation should indicate a call for action to schedule the right conversations at the right time with the right people. At We Do Change, we use data to better understand the behaviour of our flow-based systems and identify opportunities for improvement and experimental collaboration.

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