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Jim Benson


Flow As a Lean Agile Lens

This causes us to confront the double-edged sword of what lean calls ‘standard work’

Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2021 - 11:02

In lean there is mura, the waste of unevenness.

It’s probably the most important, but also most overlooked, in the waste theater.

For knowledge work, unevenness primarily interrupts flow. It’s when you have work that you should do easily but you don’t. There is this mura lying around that makes things harder than they need to be.

And most of this mura we create ourselves. Unnecessary rules, needless decision-making centralization, or simply not getting together and figuring out how we do things. So each professional on the team does predictable things in a slightly different way... making the predictable arbitrary.

Now, here’s the thing. We have three kinds of lean flow:
1. Operational flow (the flow of work)
2. Information flow (the flow of possibilities)
3. Psychological flow (the flow of our own creativity and focus).

If our aim is to create great product with an unhindered team, it is our job to make sure that all three kinds of lean flow happen to the best extent possible. We do this primarily by removing obstacles and increasing opportunities for professionalism.

This causes us to confront the double-edged sword of what lean calls “standard work.”

Professionals run on an engine of professional satisfaction.

Standard work is a gift

When we don’t define our standard work, we get stuck doing routine things. It is important to figure out what our standard work is and how to lower the unknowns or variation in doing it. This opens our time to be able to focus on nonstandard work... which is plentiful and necessary in knowledge work.


Standard work is a drug

When we over-standardize our work, we inhibit flow by unnecessary rules and regulations. As commonly practiced, both agile and lean practitioners tend to over-standardize. Agile practices set rote time limits on planning periods, enforce regular meetings, and ignore the true cadences (or lack thereof) of the work they are engaged in.

In lean, the drive to standardize work and drive out variation often comes at the expense of discovery, innovation, and growth. The use of a limited tool set and a hyper-focus on the Toyota Production System often ignores the ample process innovations that can happen at any specific and unique company.

Using flow as a lens

The idea of lean flow starts with the goal of reducing the mura. But that’s jargon....

Better flow is achieved by removing impediments to how we work, how we learn, and how we achieve professional satisfaction. That is simultaneously obvious, intense, and rarely even attempted.

It’s easy to use a tool or engage in someone else’s ideas. It’s much more difficult to step back, look at your own work and culture, and commit to optimizing them yourself.

Ironically, this is what both lean and agile preach. It is the essence of both.

These concepts are core to our Lean Agile Visual Management Program. If you liked this, you should learn more about it. Explore the Lean Agile Visual Management Certification.

First published Nov. 25, 2020, on Modus Institute.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.