Focus on flow

I have happy memories of the days when was doing my masters degree and I would be among the first into the University library. After my morning swim I’d breakfast at the cafe opposite the library and when it opened I’d be straight in. Up to the top where I would sit for the next 3 or 4 hours completely absorbed in my studies. Reading, writing assignments and later my dissertation. I was working towards something and had complete focus. I would enter the fabled state of flow.

While flow is hard to define its an idea that occurs both personal level – as I just described – and at the organization level. Personal flow is hard enough to come about but organizational flow is an order of magnitude harder. So much more needs to be co-ordinated. You need a flow friendly system, it rarely happens my accident.

Perhaps thats why I’m so excited about both the featureban flow video I published last week and the Featureban Flow Experience workshop I’m running in a few weeks time.

Digital flow

Digital tools make flow both harder to achieve and more important. The constant stream of interrupts, e-mail, WhatsApp, notification, updates and so on, makes flow more elusive. But when machines do most of the “heavy lifting” work what remains requires human thinking. Focus and flow.

If machines companies are to get the most out of their machines the machines too need to enter a state of flow. If they are regularly stalling, maybe because they run out of parts, something fails or another human intervention is needed then they will not deliver their maximum return on investment. We, the humans, need to engine flow for the machines.

That’s why the Featureban game in the video is so important. It helps us understand the process of work, the work flow. Its kind of a throw back to the days of “time and motion men.” But really what we are doing is debugging the work system and keeping it, well, flowing. The game illustrates what happens when things go wrong and how we should respond – which can be counter intuitive.

For example, consider the players in the video: each one an expert agile/kanban coach who understands how problems arise. But it doesn’t require much before these players have created a mess. Its possible the mess would have been even bigger if the players were not such experts!

There is little anyone person can do to fix the problems. (If you want another illustration watch the old HP Stockless Production video also on my channel.)

Also notice that once Mike changes the rules of the system everyone does better. The rule changes, limiting WIP, are counter intuitive to many people but they work. Throughput is increased, output rises, and we can reason about the system.

The is also a socio-technical aspect here – as Russ Lewis points out near the end. In the first round when things aren’t going well a lot of dark humour passes between the players. I’ve worked in many companies like this: things aren’t going well and such humour is the coping mechanism for people who don’t feel in control. Actually, in the video the players are often channeling real-life complaints made by staff and management edicts which make things worse.

A lot of this dark humour replaces serious conversation about how the team could do better. The team feel powerless to change things so they don’t.

In the second round there is less humour but a lot more productive discussion as team members seek to work together to improve flow, increase output and resolve difficulties. Good flow leads to better flow. Humour gives way to satisfaction at a job well done.

3 ways to learn about flow

1. Flow may be hard to define but you know it when you see it. If you haven’t watched it yet what are you waiting for? The Featureban flow experience.

2. Now I’m please to announce that the template we used to play Featureban is now available in KanbanZone and is free to use. I’ll post instructions soon but I think you can probably work it out yourself.

3. Finally, join my online Featureban Flow Experience game on June 24th (code “ABlog20” gets you a healthy discount).

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In search of flow

Every team is in a search for flow, achieving flow requires and a view of work-in-progress – WIP – and frequently the use of work-in-progress-limit. Identification and removal of blocks and bottlenecks isn’t enough, one needs to engineer them out.

Easier said than done? – I’m glad to unveil a new video to help illustrate these ideas and a short online workshop next month for people to learn by doing.

For both I have to thank Mike Burrows for inventing a game called Featureban. The game broadly models a Kanban system and shows how work becomes marooned and how WIP-limits can help address the problem.

Mike’s original Featureban game is a physical game (download it here), I created an online version which I’ve run a few times with clients. With the help of the good people at KanbanZone, Mike and I recorded a game last month and this is the video which is now free to watch: Featureban Flow Experience.

I’m running the Featureban workshop again in a few weeks, use the code ABlog20 to get a discount on the tickets.

Watching the video after the event reveals lessons which were easy to miss at the time. What I find particularly interesting is that the game is played by four experienced agile coaches but it still very quickly descends into a mess. Even in the second iteration when WIP limits are imposed the coaches find it difficult to work in the best way – even though they all know how to!

This shows how workers are often prisoners to the system they work within. The rules, and expectations create constrains. Changing the rules, actually imposing stricter rules, encourages people to co-ordinate work more closely.

Anyway, watch the video and draw your own lessons. Better still join me in a few weeks time – once you’ve played you will want to play it with your colleagues.

By the way, we are playing using a visual board called KanbanZone – perhaps the only visual tool I actually like! We will soon be making a free Featureban template available on KanbanZone. If you sign up with my link then you will get a free trial and can play the game yourself.

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