Kanban and Flow
The benefits accrued to an organization by adopting Kanban methods are closely related to the concept of flow as described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row, 1990). Having a social scientific underpinning for Kanban, we may be assured that it is not just a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, not just the “next big thing”.
What is Flow?
Flow is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does” (Wikipedia, “Flow (psychology)”). Sounds like an ideal state for for maximizing performance by those doing knowledge work, no? Many of my blog postings are written in a state of flow.
What do we need for Flow to occur?
Four pre-requisites have been identified for a flow state:
- The activity must have well defined goals
- The progress of the activity must be well defined
- The activity needs unambiguous and immediate feedback.
- One’s perceived skill levels must be balanced with the perceived challenges of the activity.
The conditions correspond extremely well with a Kanban approach.
- Goals: Each team must have a clearly defined mission and the measurement of the performance of the team is generally done with tools such as cumulative flow diagrams or statistical process control charts
- Progress: In addition to the tools mentioned above, the Kanban board—at the core of the Kanban approach—provides simple and highly visible evidence of progress.
- Immediate feedback: While Kanban does not directly address the question of immediate feedback to work performed, it sets the stage for making this immediate feedback both possible and usable by insisting on managing the sizes of work items (keeping them relatively small) and, of course, limiting the work in progress.
- Balance of skills and challenges: As a generic approach to managing the flow of work, Kanban does not directly address the question of managing the skills required to perform work. However, I would add a fifth aspect that marries flow and Kanban perfectly:
- Limited context switching: Recall that flow is characterized by a person being “…fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement…” By limiting the amount of work in progress for each person, the context switching among tasks is limited, facilitating that full immersion of flow.
A more recent synthesis of the concept of flow by Owen Schaffer (“Crafting Fun User Experiences. A Method to Facilitate Flow”. http://humanfactors.com/funexperiences.asp) highlights seven conditions for flow, of which three are directly facilitated by Kanban:
1. Knowing what to do: the work items are clearly defined
3. Knowing how well you are doing: the Kanban board provides high visibility
7. Freedom from distractions: again, limiting work in progress also limits context switching, which is demonstrably a major distraction.
Kanban is not the only way to achieve flow. Indeed, Kanban brings high, measurable benefits whether the team members achieve that exalted state of flow, or not. However, the underpinning coming from the psychological theory of flow may help to further refine performance and to leverage the Kanban approach. Organizations that do so are better positioned to achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction in the most efficient ways.