≡ Menu

Who’s Responsible For Flow, Anyway?

Lots of trafficMeet Jill. Jill just wants to be able to get to work. But every day, she faces a giant traffic jam. She does her best to avoid it however she can – leaving early, leaving later, trying alternative routes – but every day she struggles to make it to work on time.

Jill’s boss, Sarah, is quite frustrated with this. Sarah believes that a well-oiled team arrives at the same time, and doesn’t understand why Jill can’t find a way to get to work on time. Sarah tries all of her management tricks – rewarding Jill for being on time, punishing her when she isn’t, coming up with plans for improvement (like having Jill leave the house 15 minutes earlier), but no matter what she does, she can’t seem to get Jill to get to work on time.

Jill, of course, is just as frustrated. She’s really trying hard to make it to work on time. But everywhere she turns, there are delays. She tries her hardest to not have the delays be because of her – making sure she has gas in her car, paying close attention to the road, and generally attempting every superhuman feat she can think of to make it better.

But Sarah isn’t amused. After all, she is the one that engineered the very road Jill drives on every day! She knows it is right. Clearly it is valuable – look how much it is utilized! There’s nothing wrong with the road – it must be how Jill is using it that’s the problem!

This situation highlights one of the interesting problems I see with teams. On the one hand, management wants the team to deliver. The team wants to deliver too! But the teams keep missing their commitments. They try really hard. But management is just baffled at why the team can’t be more effective, or deliver more, or meet their commitments better.

The catch here is that, like Jill’s boss Sarah above, the team and organization own the very road they aren’t finding effective. Lean Thinking tells us that when a problem arises, we should look first to the system, not the individuals. What in our system failed us? While a road is hard to change, our key delivery systems usually are a bit more malleable.

In yesterday’s blog post I showed the case of Team Triscuit. They struggled to deliver on time. But ultimately, they owned the road they used every day. That’s something that can be changed – and ultimately something we need to change if it isn’t working.

So if you, your team, or your organization is struggling to deliver, look first at the system of work. What does the flow of that work look like? Is it nice and smooth? Or do you struggle to find a place to fit in, with work moving in jumps and starts?

This introspection allows teams to move away from the blame game of commitment, and towards the Lean mindset of improving how we deliver our work. And that way lies great teams – and really fast cars.