As I watch the USA battle it out with Belgium in the World Cup, (OK, I admit I am working from home today 😉 ), I am once again reminded that the most beautiful moments of the game are those that are most – there is no better way to describe it – fluid!
While the game overall is a joy to watch (at least for me – and billions of other “World Cup time soccer fans” worldwide!), every now and then you see moments of sheer beauty and thrill – plays that last more than 1-2 passes. It could be just a series of quick passes between two players to thwart an opposition player, a series of longer passes to take the ball from one corner of the field to another – or – that big thrill – a sudden and short burst of running, passing and a header (or a reverse kick or a tap) into the Goooooaaaaaallllllll!!
I don’t know if it is my preoccupation with Kanban that is causing it, but I have noticed more and more writings about achieving flow in life. Hearing about anyone doing well, not just in sports but any other endeavor, it is not uncommon to hear “they were in full flow!”. If you do a Google search about Flow in life, you will see what I am talking about. This blog post describes 9 steps to achieving flow – including choosing important tasks, clearing away distractions, focusing on the task as long as possible, enjoying yourself and reaping the rewards. You can’t miss their parallel principles in Kanban – of choosing the most important work, reducing multi-tasking, focus on finishing instead of starting and delivering value!
The principle concept of flow in business was introduced by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, who asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow”. You can watch his famous video here. The origins of the idea of Flow can be found in ancient Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism and its use in theories by Maslow and Rogers about human psychology.
In personal life or at work, we often don’t realize how much lack of flow there is. Especially in knowledge work, where work is “hidden” in people’s minds, computers and in written/ unwritten minutes of innumerable meetings that so many of us have often become a willing victim of, it can be shocking to learn how much any work deliverable – a software feature, an employee appraisal, a loan application, a support ticket – and many more – stays ‘waiting’ for some work to happen on it. At the risk of offending our football fan readers, this is similar to a typical American football game where, as a study showed a couple of years ago, that of the total 185 minutes that an NFL game lasts, actual play happens for only 10 minutes and 43 seconds!! 😉
Kanban’s Flow Efficiency metric, brings out this fact dramatically. I first heard David Anderson talk of it during a trip to India. He described studies done by Zsolt Fabok, that in typical knowledge worker teams, the Flow Efficiency – which is the ratio of Work Time/ Cycle Time – is very low. Teams have reported flow efficiency as low as 2%! 5-15% is normal and above 40% is pretty good. You can read more about Zsolt Fabok’s work here.
As Raghu, our Chief Business Officer, posted, the corporate world is exploring and exploiting a variety of methods to get employees to truly stay ‘engaged’ with the company’s mission and objectives – in order to produce their best. Monetary incentives don’t work. One of the key things to do is to make it clear to employees what is expected from them and what their deliverables are. In other words, the more visible their deliverables are, the better employees will perform. A corollary of this is, the more invisible their work is, and its associated sources of waste such as delays, the worse their performance will be. So, Kanban can play a crucial role for many teams, helping them visualize their work, depending on their context. Flow-efficiency brings out even more dramatically, the amount of waste in any business operation – and conversely, the potential to improve!
Clearly, football – I mean, soccer! – teams don’t need a Kanban Board on the field to improve their flow! (Wasn’t that crazy free-kick move by – I believe – Jones and Dempsey brilliant?! And oh, so fluid for the zig-zag way the ball went thru – till the Belgian goalie stopped it!) However, knowledge organizations, especially their management, would do very well by focusing on helping their teams and employees be ‘in full-flow’ as much as possible. Measuring and improving Flow Efficiency could mean an improvement of 100s of thousands of dollars to their top- and bottom-line.
What are you doing to maximize Flow in your professional – and personal – life? I’d love to hear your experience.
Co-Founder, CMO/ Head of Consulting
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