To Flow or Not to Flow? – That’s Not Really the Question

By: Joshua Ebert, UL

In the early days of implementing continuous improvement tools at our 110-year old engineering services firm I had an opportunity to help develop visibility into our workflow. Most of our work resided on paper, in e-mail systems and in the minds of our associates. We labelled a lot of our initial efforts as “Making the Invisible, Visible.” We learned from other organizations and from lean consultants that we couldn’t improve our processes without first seeing flow or the absence of it. I believe we did good work and am proud of the various visualizations and tools we were able to produce including Dynamic Cycle Time Charts and Capacity Heat Maps.

All this work culminated in a global scheduling system that was designed to match incoming demand with the best available capacity. However, it wasn’t long before we started to get an occasional complaint from staff and/or customers that the way work was being routed potentially caused issues. This new way of redistributing the demand was revealing variability in our processes, as well as in our way of handling differing customer specifications. At the time, these new discoveries seemed like an undesirable consequence, rather than the gift they really were. 

Eventually, we did what most other organizations do when a new problem is revealed—we began to digress back to our old systems and ways. Sure, it meant our customers would sometimes have to wait longer for available resources, but at least we wouldn’t have to address the tougher problem of the hidden variability in our processes—out of sight, out of mind.

When working to achieve flow, we uncover lots of “nasty” truths, many of which remain hidden amongst piles of inventory or, in our case, work on hand. How we respond to these discoveries makes the difference in whether we will move closer toward achieving excellence or remain entrenched in our current business practices. Our team recognized that our inaugural efforts to optimize the flow of work somewhat missed the mark by not involving our engineers and technicians more in the problem-solving process as challenges were made visible. Our big lesson learned was how embracing this standard work leads to desired behaviors, including a culture of associates engaged daily in continuous improvement.   

The hardest proposition in driving flow is having the tenacity to push through barriers that seem like reasons not to flow. When teams reach beyond their current paradigms they are able to see ideal flow and implement improvements toward it. What truths will your team uncover today?

Joshua Ebert, Global CI Manager, UL

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