This article is also featured on LinkedIn by Kyle Chandler
Productivity is all about flow. What is flow? I like Mike Burrow’s definition from his book Right to Left. Flow is about delivering maximum value to the customer with minimum delay, interruption, or rework.
Flow is about delivering maximum value to the customer with minimum delay, interruption, or rework.
When driving your car from point A to B, where are you more likely to achieve flow? On a country road? On a highway? On a big city street downtown? Probably not on a big city street with lots of cars and traffic lights. You’ve achieved maximum flow if you get onto a highway, and exit without having to come to a crawl.
Like water, achieving flow is about making consistent progress without being blocked. Just like our work, water can find itself moving in circles, backwards, or stuck with minimal movement at all due to its surrounding environment.
The Kanban Method is all about achieving flow. From the time work is started to the time it is delivered to the customer, Kanban helps you see and resolve what is getting in your way.
Flow efficiency is how much time work spends waiting vs. how much time it spends being worked on. It’s common to find flow efficiency to be as low as 5% in organizations that use this exercise. That means work that takes six months only includes about one week of hands-on work. In the most productive of organizations with 40% flow efficiency, one week of hands-on work would be delivered in three weeks, instead of 6 months. Keep in mind that this exercise is most effective when run above and across teams involved in delivery to your customer.
It’s common to find flow efficiency to be as low as 5% in organizations that use this exercise. That means work that takes six months only includes about one week of hands-on work.
In this article, we’ll give you some simple tips on how you can identify if you are achieving excellent flow efficiency.
6 Simple Steps To Determine Your Flow Efficiency
STEP #1: Create a Kanban board
Determine where you want to start, whether it’s within a single team, or across teams, and create a very simple Kanban board. If this is your first time using Kanban start with a single team and with three columns (To do, in progress, and done). You can create your board virtually for now, or in-person if you’re so lucky. Here is an example.
Important: In the TODO column, make sure that the work that is in this column is already committed. The end-customer should already be anticipating and waiting for delivery.
STEP #2: Select Your Most Important Work Types
A work-type is simply something the customer has requested that you’ll be delivering to them; things they can recognize. For example, features or bugs for software development teams. If you’re in marketing, it might be articles, blogs, or video content. It’s essential to track work that is customer recognizable because only when this work is done is value created for your customers.
It’s essential to track work that is customer recognizable because only when this work is done is value created for your customers.
If you have many work-types, focus on one or two of the most important ones to achieve flow with for now. I have chosen to show features (blue) and bugs (purple) in our example.
Don’t populate your board just yet. You still have more work to do.
STEP #3: Design Cards that Help you Observe and Collect Data
Cards on a Kanban board represent work that provides value to your customer when completed independently of other cards. To make it easy to see when flow is impeded, design your cards to make it easy to observe flow problems and collect flow data. In your first board, you should keep this very basic. I recommend:
- A short title
- A way to measure cycle time (duration) from TODO to DONE. For example, by writing the date it moved into each column directly on the card (todo, in progress, done)
- A way to signal when work is blocked or waiting (not being worked on). For example, a red blocked icon.
- A way to signal how long work was blocked or waiting for. For example, an incrementing days blocked/waiting indicator on the card.
You can use a digital tool that captures all of this information for you automatically, but for now, I recommend keeping it very simple. Don’t let implementing a complicated tool to get in the way of learning about your flow efficiency. Using a digital whiteboard tool like Mural or Miro is easy and can accomplish the task at hand.
In this example below, I have a feature (blue) that is currently blocked and has been blocked for up to 2 days. I also have a bug (purple) that is not blocked but was previously blocked/waiting for 15 days.
STEP #4: Populate Your Kanban Board – Make Initial Observations
Once you’ve established what you want to track and what the cards will look like, it’s time to fill your board.
At this point, it’s good to make some initial observations. You’ll notice that TODO cards have never been blocked. Time in TODO will be considered ‘waiting time’ in the flow-efficiency calculation, so there is no need to mark these cards as blocked/waiting. You should also observe the number of cards in progress (6) vs. the number of team members you have. Does it look too high? Is it possible for all of those cards to be in progress at once?
STEP #5: Agree to Update the Board Daily and Collaboratively
The objective of updating the board daily should be to help everyone gather data and learn about how well our work is flowing through observation. Since this may be the first time you’re trying it – you’ll want to keep it very simple. Agree to meet daily and for everyone to give input into the updates. Don’t let this meeting go longer than 15 minutes.
Every morning bring your team together and
- Move the cards into the correct column and update their dates
- Label blocked cards that are not going to get attention today
- Increment the counter on cards that are still blocked
- Bonus: Keep track daily of the number of cards that are in the ‘In progress’ column.
STEP #6: Review your Flow Efficiency
After several weeks, you’ll have enough data to calculate your flow efficiency.
Calculate Flow Efficiency
Recall, that flow efficiency of 5% is typically found in organizations that do this exercise. If you have a flow efficiency of 40%, you are considered elite.
To calculate flow efficiency start one card at a time.
- Active Days = Number of Days IN PROGRESS – Number of days card was marked blocked/waiting
- Cycle Time = Number of Days between TODO and DONE
- Flow efficiency = Active Days / Cycle Time
Once you’ve done this for all cards, you can then create an average for all cards to find out your average flow efficiency. If your average is closer to 40%, you’re doing well. If your average is closer to 5%, there is a lot you can do to improve and that the Kanban Method can offer you.
BONUS: Plot Daily Work-In-Progress
If you decided to collect how many cards were in the “IN PROGRESS” column daily, then you can have some more insight. Map each day you collected data on the x-axis and # of cards found in the “In Progress” column on the y-axis. You will find that your resulting graph looks like one of these:
Beware of the increasing WIP trend. Flow-efficiency and cycle time get worse as WIP increases.The Stable WIP trend means that flow-efficiency and cycle time may be constant, not getting better, not getting worse. The Decreasing WIP trend is most unlikely, and decreasing WIP will help you improve your flow-efficiency and your cycle time.
That’s it – if you have followed these steps, you’ll very quickly learn if you are achieving excellent flow efficiency or not. If you have identified that you have low flow efficiency and increasing WIP or stable WIP, then trying to gradually decrease WIP is the next logical step to improve flow efficiency. You’ll also want to start breaking the “in progress” column into stages so you can better manage different stages of your workflow.
If you want to learn how to improve flow there are 150+ more techniques from the Kanban Method that help you. These can wildly accelerate your delivery speed.
To learn more check out our ultimate guide or get a copy of these books:
- Essential Kanban Condensed by David J. Anderson
- Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business by David J. Anderson
Feel free to comment or contact me directly for questions. I’m happy to help.