Good business flow describes an organizational system that’s able to provide a consistent, steady flow of value to its customers. Bad flow is what happens when everyone is busy, but it seems impossible to get anything done.
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When organizations are failing to meet their customer’s needs, they often think of it as an issue with speed. That might be why you’re reading this article – to answer the question, how does my organization deliver value faster?
The answer is not to optimize for speed; it’s to optimize for business flow. Here are four reasons why optimizing for business flow is critical for any business hoping to deliver more customer value, faster – but first, a business flow analogy.
A Business Flow Analogy
Imagine you’re at a track meet, watching a 4 x 400m relay race. While one runner carries the baton around the track, three other runners stand in a ready position waiting for their turn.
As soon as one runner finishes her lap, another grabs the baton and carries it for the next leg of the race. This happens two more times, until the baton crosses the finish line.
Now imagine if the runners ran the race like we run our businesses. While the first runner was running, each of the other runners would be running other races, to make sure they weren’t “wasting time.” None of their races would begin or end at the same time, so when the first runner was ready to pass the baton, the second would not be there to receive it.
The baton would sit there, waiting for the next runner, with no one in sight to carry it for the next leg of the race. Eventually, the baton might reach the finish line, unless something happened in one of the other races to hold it up.
In business, the runners are your team members, and the baton is the value you offer your customers. The ability to pass the baton between runners and get it across the finish line is called business flow. The way most businesses are run, it’s remarkable that the baton ever gets to the finish line – which is interesting, considering that the only true indicator of success in business isn’t how busy our people are, but how much value they are able to produce, and how often.
4 Reasons to Optimize for Business Flow
Business flow equips us with the ability to move with not only speed, but velocity – speed that moves us in the right direction. When your business is able to respond to market trends and customer demands faster and more effectively than your competitors, you gain a distinct competitive advantage.
Business flow also makes this advantage sustainable: Delivering value steadily and frequently means that you have consistent and frequent opportunities to test ideas, features, products, and services in the market. You can receive and incorporate customer feedback quickly. This means you have more customer data with which you can make products and services that are more valuable, faster. Win-win.
Your organization and the teams within it can’t optimize for flow without a shared, clear understanding of your process. The first step in optimizing for business flow is to define and visualize your process.
This is why many teams turn to Kanban (a visual management method) to optimize their workflows. Learn more about how Kanban can help your teams deliver faster.
Once your organization and the teams within it have accurately visualized your processes, you can begin to observe and analyze how work moves through your system, and identify opportunities to improve flow.
You can use data from your Kanban system to alleviate or eliminate recurring blockers, bottlenecks, and other impediments to getting work done. Learn more about how to use Kanban board data to optimize flow.
When your organization isn’t optimizing for flow, work is handed off between impossibly busy team members who are mentally exhausted from the devastating effects of context switching, excessive meetings, rework, and an inability to focus. This isn’t only affecting your speed of delivery; it’s having a significantly negative impact on quality as well.
Quality is a byproduct of focus, which is enabled by flow. Optimizing for flow encourages every person in your organization to work to get pieces of value across the finish line as quickly as possible.
They do this by actively, intentionally limiting how much work they have in process, so instead of working on tens of things at once, they focus on a small handful of tasks and work to deliver them with the fewest interruptions / delays possible. They rely on short feedback loops to keep momentum moving toward creating customer value.
Their focus allows them to create work that is more valuable to the customer, while reducing personal stress and delivering at a sustainably fast pace. Learn more about why limiting work in process is critical for flow.
Optimizing for speed by encouraging employees to work at 100% utilization can wreak havoc on work quality, focus, and (ironically) productivity, not to the mention mental and physical health of employees, which can lead to burnout and high turnover rates.
Optimizing for business flow enables businesses to actually be more productive; it enables them to get more batons across the finish line, faster. It provides them with the ability to focus on fewer things at a time, armed with customer data, enabled by a clearly defined process and a highly communicative, collaborative team. Instead of wasting precious time, energy, and brain power on switching between dozens of tasks at once, they can create work they are proud of, faster than ever before.