Managing Workflow - the Lean Way

John Shook, Chairman and CEO, Lean Enterprise Institute and Alice Lee, Executive director, Lean Enterprise Institute
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Learning to make value flow—making work flow—is the very DNA of lean thinking, no matter the type of work it is being applied to.

And nothing like a few decades of observing work to tell you that, at the end of the day, the challenges of designing, doing and improving work—no matter what kind—are all pretty much the same. We want work to flow. Customers want work to flow, so they can get their product or service faster. Companies want work to flow so they can get paid—after all, cash is king. Workers want work to flow—there is nothing more frustrating for a human doing work than for the work they are trying to do to fail to progress, to sit there, to stagnate. Whether chopping down trees, printing magazines, or writing articles (all of which happened if you are reading this in physical form), each of us in the process wanted the work to flow. Humans are happier when things are flowing: read Flow by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

So, the essential challenge is ultimately the same: transform material, motion, and mental cognition into value. In the case if IT, the salient realms are cognition and motion. As we transform material or motion or mental activity into value, the work to be done will entail either transaction or cognition (and you can break down those two categories further if you need). The work to be done in the IT world is not much a matter of material transformation; it’s a matter of either performing simple transactions or thinking, sometimes deeply, about something.

  The work to be done in the IT world is not much a matter of material transformation; it’s a matter of either performing simple transactions or thinking, sometimes deeply, about something 

Finally, like customers, companies, and workers, CIO’s want work to flow, too. First, though, what is work flow?

Making Work Flow—the Lean Way

From Henry Ford’s accomplishments with flowing simple work down the assembly line, to post-war Toyota figuring out how to do the same with much lower volume, higher variety products, to today’s application of lean thinking to realms as varied as healthcare, startups, and knowledge work—lean thinking shines a light on pathways to allow work to flow.

The first English language documentation of lean production appeared in the 1977 article “Toyota Production System and Kanban System – materialization of just in time and respect for human system” For the first time, the English-language world saw the now famous two pillars of TPS, and Kanban to facilitate workflow depicted as:

From there, adaptations of Toyota’s JIT flow are many—from Theory of Constraints in the 1980s to Lean Kanban in the 2000s. Toyota’s dramatically superior workflow was made famous by the MIT research team that coined the term “lean production”, whose studies showed that lead times of lean operations were typically 10 percent that of traditional operations, an improvement attained through better managing of workflows.

Building People and Organizations That Can Make Work Flow – The Lean Way

One of us, John, learned about lean thinking at the source, working for Toyota in Japan decades ago. The other, Alice, directly managed a large IT organization and led the application of lean thinking in the messy work of managing the flow of work (patients, doctors, and the work of all kinds of providers and supporters) in a large, complex, academic medical center.

A critical dialogue missing in writing about IT and in direct conversations we’ve had with IT thought leaders is the concept of capability development. The only source of sustainable competitive advantage is to be found in developing capability in people, the only asset that appreciates in value over time—IF we invest in it. It turns out that developing people and enabling them to do one thing at a time is the wonderful distinguishing characteristic of a lean system. It’s not a byproduct; it’s the point.

Here is the most underappreciated contribution of lean thinking: all those wonderful results—better quality, lower cost, better responsiveness through shorter lead times—come about via a relentless focus on the work. The work of individual workers People.

There has been no shortage of attempts to apply lean thinking to IT. Lean IT, agile, scrum, Lean Startup is all different takes on the same challenge. Lean IT by Bell and Orzen is a great place to look for insights in applying lean thinking to IT as a function. Personal Kanban by Benson and DeMaria Barry provides a very different take that explicitly tackles the thorny set of issues around how to make work flow for software developers, or people engaged in any type of knowledge work.

Here’s the thing to remember—all the high-level flow tools and systems are meaningless until we enable work to flow one-step-at-a-time from value-creating step to value-creating step. How, then to enable workers in IT organizations to know simply and clearly what they need to do next and then enable them to perform that work effectively? Touch each piece of paper once, go to each screen once, fill in each field once. Then on to the next. Make it easier for workers to know prioritization, to focus on the right thing, to see abnormalities, and to build in quality. It’s at this micro level of doing it that the flow of work improves.

Your Role

What then does lean thinking have to say about the role of CIOs, or leaders at any level in the IT world?

Taiichi Ohno is the father of the Toyota Production System and so a godfather of lean thinking as applied to any endeavor. Workflow—developing people to flow the work to be done in order to create value—was at the heart of everything he did. Here’s what he had to say about making work flow, through the words of his pupil T. Harada in Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno: “Create an environment in which work can flow.” So, that’s our job—to create the social and technical environment that allows, enables, encourages and even forces work to flow.

Whether the work to be done is physical or mental, creating the environment for work to flow is not ancillary but the very essence of the responsibility of management.

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