May 30, 2019
Establish Flow First
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A friend and former colleague posted an excellent description online of what “Lean” is in nine words. Of particular poignancy to me was the reminder that the tools used to become a Lean organization, do not necessarily make an organization Lean. Being Lean is more than solving problems with tools, it is a way of thinking and acting. It includes how problem-solving is approached and who within the organization is included in developing and implementing the solution. It is how you run your organization.
There are many facets of becoming a Lean organization, and many steps to take along the journey. One tool, or practice, that we strive for as Lean implementers is the concept of “one-piece flow.” Essentially, the act of working on and completing one piece (widget, form, document) before passing it onto the next step of the process and beginning to work on the next piece. This is a powerful practice and can be beneficial to organizations, but an essential process change must happen first. When talking about this concept, we often neglect what I believe to be the most important word in the phrase: “flow.”
By “flow” I mean the movement of the work through the process. A process with a good flow makes sense. It allows the work to move from station to station with little or no wait times, redundancies, or double-backs. A process without good flow jumps around. It has WIP, and build-ups of work queues, and is ripe to the implementation of just about everything in the lean toolbox.
Without first establishing a sense of flow in the process, no improvement will be accomplished. Without flow, trying to move to a single piece production model will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Our first concern, then, when looking to improve any process is whether or not it “flows.” Does the order of process steps make sense? Does the physical layout of the work area (shop floor, office, etc.) allow the for easy movement of products through the process?
The good news is a process without flow can be almost instantaneously improved by establishing better flow. If nothing else changes, the re-ordering of process steps so the work moves from station to station should allow the product to move more easily through the system. By first establishing flow, the low hanging fruit ripe for improvement becomes much easier to reach.
So, before you go looking for a problem to solve, or a tool to apply; ask yourself “does the process flow?” If you can’t answer the question definitively, then the answer is “no.” If so, your next step is to map it. Walk through the process in question, but don't rely on what you already know (or think you know) about it. Take off the rose colored glasses, and put on your skeptic pair. Go and see it for yourself; pretend it is the first time you've walked onto the shop floor or office area. Create a new understanding of how things actually work. Establish a solid sense of the flow to your current work process. Then redefine it to establish better flow.
Establishing flow is not the final answer though. As with any continuous improvement effort, you have to take the next step, or in this case ask the next questions: “Now that we’ve made the process flow, how does that help us?” The good news most of the time, a process that flows will give you the answer. The bad news is that is a topic for another post.
If you would like to learn more about understanding and establishing process flows in your organization, I am here to help. Request a meeting, and we will explore the possibilities together.
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