Leaders Understand the Importance of Flow

Gerwig 2016-03-02

Are you a Lean Sensei? Can you explain the theory of constraints? Do you understand why it’s important to “feed the bottleneck?” If so, you might be able to skip this short article. Then again, you might want to see how lean concepts can be applied to running a large corporation or leading a family or a managing your personal calendar. Regardless of whether or not you read further, let me be clear up-front. Great, world-class leaders understand the importance of flow. And pace. And burnout. And, whether they realize it or not, the theory of constraints.

World-class leaders, whether by intuition, trial-and-error, academic pursuit, or their own empirical study, know that flow (or pace) is critical to long-term, sustainable performance. They know that the best and only way to achieve optimal, world-class results over the long-run is by recognizing the importance of flow and leading accordingly.

Each summer for the last 25 years, we have gone to Colorado during the summer to visit family. Most of the time, we find a way to spend a week at Snow Mountain Ranch in a cabin. If you haven’t been, check it out (http://snowmountainranch.org/). It’s a great place for a family reunion, weekend getaway, or an extended vacation. And it’s equally fun in winter as it is during the summer months. Or if you prefer, stay at their sister site in Estes Park (http://ymcarockies.org/). Either way, you’ll be certain to have a great and memorable time.

One of the “rules” during our annual stay is that each family rotates cooking meals. So on a night that it was our turn, my wife fixed a tenderloin and stuffed poblano pepper dish. It’s always a winner. We’ve had it on a number of occasions and each time, I’m pleasantly reminded how good it tastes. Layers and layers of flavor. But there are some things the cook has to remember, like what temperature to set the oven for and how long to cook the poblano peppers. And at Snow Mountain Ranch, my wife had to adjust for the impact of altitude as well (over a mile high in elevation). She did a great job and the dish was a smashing success. But what’s the point? The point is that the final product required flow. Allow me to explain.

The dish required a certain length of time in the oven at a certain temperature. For it to turn out right (and taste delicious), you can’t rush it. You can’t increase the temperature 2x and reduce the cooking time. You’d ruin the dish. For world-class stuffed poblano peppers, you need a set of conditions (i.e. the temperature) and you need a certain length of time. There is a flow or pace to preparing this great dish. You can’t rush it. There are no short-cuts.

Leaders understand the importance of flow, pace, and consistently feeding the bottle-neck for optimal output. In most manufacturing and fulfillment operations, you want the work to flow. Otherwise, you increase cost, work-in-process (WIP), introduce errors, and deliver inconsistent output.

Customers, too, like consistent output and service. Think about it this way. What if your local coffee shop was highly inconsistent in their service time to make a cappuccino? Let’s say that in the morning, the baristas made each cappuccino in 2 minutes, but in the afternoon they took 6 minutes (averaging 4 minutes for the day). What would that inconsistency do for business? If expected wait time was 4 minutes, morning customers would be satisfied while afternoon customers would be upset. Wouldn’t customers be more satisfied with consistent response times? I know I am. Customers will pay for consistent service.

Another example that illustrates the importance of flow is wherever you have a checkout system (i.e. cashier) and a queue forms. It forms because there isn’t flow. And it’s frustrating, right? I remember going through a cafeteria one time and the food was dished out quickly. I was done in the blink of an eye. But I had to pay before I could sit down and eat. I waited nearly 10 minutes. My food was cold by the time I ate, because there was no flow. It was the old “hurry up and wait” game.

Leaders understand the importance of flow and of pace. A marathon runner doesn’t start her race at the pace of a 100m sprinter. A factory manager wants workers who produce 50 subassemblies per hour, not 100 one hour and zero the next. Our bodies also require flow for optimal health. A healthy eater doesn’t eat a large quantity of food one time per month. They eat steadily throughout the month, day by day.

While there are conditions and situations that require short bursts of breakneck speed (i.e. expediting a customer’s order), world-class parents, coaches, and corporate executives know that optimal, sustained performance is about maintaining flow. Without a steady, predictable, and reliable pace, costs increase and customer expectations are not consistently met.

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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