The Role of Flow for Operational Excellence

Published on November 14, 2013

The Role of Flow for Operational Excellence

This article is an excerpt from our “Ask the Expert Colum” featured in our November 2013 newsletter 

Q: I’m trying to find the best way to explain the value of flow to my employees. I know flow is the best way to work because it has the least amount of waste, and it makes us more efficient and productive. However, this explanation has an air of, “Get more out of us,” which is not my intention. As a manager, I am simply trying to make the operation cost-effective. Is there a way I can explain the need for flow and why Operational Excellence is not about getting more out of the employees?


A: Great question, and it is one that really helps explain the difference between traditional lean thinking and more progressive lean thinking that drives Operational Excellence.

By now, everyone working in continuous improvement knows the results that can be achieved using flow: shorter lead times, increased on time delivery, faster throughput, higher inventory turns, fewer defects, and so on. As you mentioned in your question, creating flow does lead to increased efficiency and higher productivity, and it will lead to a more cost-effective operation.

But many organizations overlook the real reason for creating flow: to see when it stops. This is one of the things that separates Operational Excellence from traditional lean thinking.

To understand this rationale behind why we create flow, think of how the operation functions when there’s no flow. Without flow, it’s very difficult for anyone in the organization (both management and frontline employees) to easily tell if product is on time to customer demand or if something has gone wrong somewhere in the operation because of problems. Typically, it was only possible to know if something was wrong after a major disruption had already occurred, at which time it was too late to do anything to correct the issue without negatively impacting customers.

With flow in place, however, everyone in an organization could now easily tell if something had gone wrong, and for one simple reason: if product was flowing, then everyone knew the operation was functioning normally. If product was not flowing and had stopped, then everyone knew we were in an abnormal condition and something had gone wrong that needed to be fixed.

To be clear, all the normal gains associated with creating flow, like increased productivity and decreased lead time, still occur even when we think of flow in this new way. These are the results of creating flow, but they’re not really why we do it.

Thinking of flow in this new way enables us to build on and enhance traditional lean flow, to take it to the next level. Pushing this concept even further, when the employees can see the flow of product on their own and understand whether it is proceeding normally or abnormally, then they can step in and fix abnormal flow conditions on their own, without needing the intervention of management.

When we reach this advanced stage, which requires the implementation of visual flow indicators so each employee can physically see when the flow or product is about to stop, we will have created something called “self-healing flow,” or a flow that corrects itself without requiring the assistance management. This enables the correction of abnormal flow to move to the front line of the operation, thereby giving management time to work on offense, or the activities that generate business growth. This is another big difference between traditional lean thinking and Operational Excellence. In Operational Excellence, we want management to be focused on growing the business, not fixing problems related to flow.

When thinking of the differences between normal flow and self-healing flow and how you might explain them to your employees, it’s important to consider the different reasons why each type of flow was created. If the focus is solely on the results we will achieve, it is unlikely the flow will ever become self-healing. Why? Because if we think the reason we created flow was solely to achieve the results of increased efficiency or improved productivity, then everything we do with our system of flow, including what we do to improve or enhance it in the future, will have increasing efficiency, productivity, and so on as the ultimate goal.

However, if everyone understands that flow is created so each employee in the organization can see when it stops, then the goal of the organization going forward will be to enhance everyone’s ability to see and know when flow has stopped. Once everyone can do this, then the employees can fix the flow on their own, but the only way we will reach this operational state is if everyone in the organization understands the real reason behind creating flow: to see when it stops.

Done correctly, creating not just flow but self-healing flow enables everyone in the organization to visually understand whether the flow is proceeding normally or abnormally. With self-healing flow implemented, not only will the business see significant positive gains, but the frontline employees will have more autonomy in the operation and management will have more time to grow the business.

Hopefully, this answer can help your employees gain a better understanding of flow, the real reason it is needed, and how it helps support the overall goal in Operational Excellence of freeing management to work solely on offense activities.