Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.
— one of the foundational principles of the kanban method
— one of the six core practices of the kanban method
How do teams continually improve and mature toward greater fitness for purpose? That’s something we at Asynchrony are keen to discover. One recent experiment to catalyze improvement that we’ve started at Asynchrony is the trial of what we think is an emerging role in our particular work culture: flow manager.
We actually got the idea from Christophe Achouiantz and his experience with kanban at Sandvik IT. Earlier this year, he wrote that:
The flow manager’s role does not actually exist in the Kanban method (there are no prescribed roles whatsoever), but – in Sandvik IT’s context – we found out that there is the need for someone from within the team to take charge for the implementation to stick. The role has some similarities to a Scrum Master role, once removed from the project management aspects it often is loaded with. The purpose of the flow manager is to make the team reflect and act: follows the policies it has created, create new ones when needed, discuss and act on exceptions (issues and opportunities), experiments to find creative solutions, etc. The flow manager inspires, challenges and coaches. This role really is an extension of the coach and is meant to take over when the coach phases out.
That was a great starting point for us: Our team model includes team leads, who are often tech leads with project-management responsibilities. But because we are a (very) flat organization, we do not have the middle-management layer of many organizations where kanban is often best catalyzed. As David Anderson writes,
Kanban is a change designed to be led from the middle. Bottom-up initiatives tend to stall with only local improvements and boards that are best described as team (or personal) Kanban. Without middle-management support to improve service delivery to external customers there is generally no momentum to look at the whole workflow and focus on improving flow of work.
This accurately describes many of our teams, who focus on delivery — something we do well — but typically don’t often make time to “look at the whole workflow and focus on improving flow of work.” We have busy executive leaders and busy delivery-team members — but generally speaking we have no one “in the middle” to focus on improving service delivery per se. As David Mann writes in Creating a Lean Culture,
… this [someone being available to respond right away] means focusing on the process as it operates from beginning to end, not only at the completed component or finished goods end. That’s why lean designs require so many team leaders to maintain the process, to spot problems in upstream intermediate or subprocess areas, and to respond right away to prevent or minimize missing takt [rate of customer demand] at the outlet end of the process. An integral part of the lean management system is having the appropriate number of team leaders on the floor to focus on the process. It requires a leap of faith not to scrimp on this crucial part of the system; having enough leaders available to monitor the process, react to problems, and work toward root cause solutions is an investment that pays off in business results. But at first, and from a conventional perspective, team leaders just look like more overhead.
Our teams are generally reliable at retrospecting: Teams have recurring retrospectives to celebrate successes and target improvements usually on a weekly or biweekly cadence. And we’ve developed a cadre of “volunteer” facilitators so that every team can benefit from an objective, trained facilitator. But even for teams who practice this weekly, it’s not the kind of daily, “on the floor” improvement leadership that Mann is talking about. (Our facilitators spend the vast majority of their time working in their own teams and interact with the team for whom they facilitate one hour a week, at most.)
Enter the flow manager
Our teams understand kanban as a visual-management practice. Nearly every team has a kanban board. But until recently most teams haven’t fully understood the values and benefits of the kanban method. New hires play the Get Kanban game. But the learning sometimes fades away once they start work and they get busy delivering. After conducting a depth-of-Kanban assessment for a few teams, we found that though people are indeed interested in improving, they don’t necessarily know where to start — or how to continue. Earlier, I used “mature toward greater fitness for purpose” rather than “evolve toward” intentionally: In my experience, teams don’t evolve (which implies a kind of passive or natural course) so much as they intentionally mature toward bettering themselves and their delivery. It’s a matter of intentionality. We needed someone to provide that intentional and disciplined approach to improvement, the flow manager. We see the flow manager as a catalyst of change within teams that believe themselves too busy to focus on improving. Mann also writes about how bad habits are less “broken” than they are “extinguished.” We see the flow manager as a bad-habit extinguisher.
So what would you say you … do?
First, a word on the title: “Manage Flow” is one of the Core Practices of Kanban Method, so it made sense to emphasize that. With Christophe’s description as inspiration, we enumerated standard work for the role:
|Project kickoff||Preview with team the depth-of-kanban assessment, educate on values|
|Works with the team, customer and stakeholders to identify fitness criteria|
|Visibly publish as explicit policies shared expectations on work item selection and quality criteria|
|Daily||At standup, ask: Are you seeing flow?|
|Track where blockages occur and conduct root-cause analysis when they do|
|Help team follow the policies it has created (e.g., WIP limits and work selection) and discuss and act on exceptions to policies (issues and opportunities) at after-standup meeting|
|Ensure that all of the team’s work items are organized visually by type, state, parallel work stream and class of service|
|Help team to size and select work items to optimize economic outcomes|
|Weekly||Work with executive sponsor to communicate and remove system-wide blockers|
|Oversee improvement experiments (clearly state hypothesis, measurements, timings) identified at retrospectives|
|Work with retrospective facilitator to schedule regular meetings|
|Helps team create new or revise existing policies when needed|
|Report and make visible progress, demand and capability externally, both to customer and the wider organization (cycle times, flow efficiency, percent accurate and complete)|
|Monthly||Facilitate operations review within customer “division”|
|Ensure that the team’s metrics have a clear relationship to the system’s purpose|
|Every 1-6 months||Conduct depth-of-kanban assessment|
As such, flow manager is a servant-leader role. As Mike Burrows writes in Kanban from the Inside, leadership can be as simple as looking at the work board and asking:
- What is stuck today?
- Are you seeing flow?
- Where do blockages repeatedly occur?
- Why is that?
Our teams generally practice standup meetings and are self-organizing enough to ask the first question. But beyond identifying what is stuck, teams don’t focus on the other, just-as-important, questions. Mike asks, “What if this kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to your organization? This is where the flow manager helps.
I like how Christophe stresses the “in our context.” As with any kanban implementation, you need to respect current roles. Flow manager may not be helpful in your context; it may actually be harmful! I mentioned that we’re viewing the pilot of this role as an experiment, so be open to the possibility of it not working. But use some quantitative way to assess whether it does or doesn’t. (We started with the kanban assessments to benchmark.)
*The flow of work items through each state in the workflow should be monitored and reported – often referred to as Measuring Flow. By flow we mean movement. We are interested in the speed of movement and the smoothness of that movement. Ideally we want fast smooth flow. Fast smooth flow means our system is both creating value quickly, which is minimizing risk and avoiding (opportunity) cost of delay, and is also doing so in a predictable fashion.