How to create, change, and manage stable workflows

Workflows can help to streamline and automate repeatable business tasks. Having a better workflow helps a company to minimise overall efficiency. Creating, changing, and managing workflows can be a challenging task. Management needs to pay attention to all the small details. 

The theory of constraint states, if we would like to improve a system, we need to get rid of the weakest link. We all know bottlenecks reduce work efficiency. When the bottleneck has been identified and dealt with it continuously improves the work process. 

A stable and predictable workflow allows individuals to achieve high output demands. When there is idle time within a team. Managers often become obsessed with giving employees other projects to optimise this idle time, although they should rather be focusing on optimising the delivery speed and building a healthy environment that fuels team growth and self-esteem.

Idle time is not the Enemy. Idle time offers many advantages. The most obvious is it reduces stress. When a team member is less stressed, they can improve the precision and quality of the work they produce. When a team member is proud of their work and feels their workload is manageable it’s boosts their confidence too. Idle time can be used to improve skills, training sessions, or improving interaction with the team. Allowing the team to improve all these components will lead your team to become more efficient and self-managed. 

When management eliminates the idle time, it may feel satisfying and look efficient; it disrupts the growth of the team and the consistency of workflow. More effective change management puts people first. Teams become highly motivated and dedicated. Companies that empower self-improvement are more successful than those that try to utilise every second. 

To achieve a stable workflow, it is best to limit the amount of work in progress and rather balance the demand using a pull system. This can better be known as the Kanban method. 

The method states that the demand needs to be set at a rate where the team can accept new work at the same rate the work is being delivered. Keeping a limit with the work in progress. As the work is delivered the team member can then pull new work. This allows the throughput of the workflow to be limited by the throughput of the slowest step in the workflow. It is considered to be the best way to get the bottleneck to reveal itself. The team leader can identify which team members are fully loaded and which have idle time. 

The Kanban method is a pull system. The team only takes or pulls work when they can do it rather than being assigned from the top. This allows management to improve the workflow process without making changes to the team structure. 

The Kanban Method has a few fundamental principles:

  1. Start with what you currently have. The method does not require a specific setup and can be allied to your current workflow. The benefits are gradual, and the improvements can be seen over time. 
  2. Agree to pursue and incremental change. Making immediate changes can unsettle your team and disrupt performance. The method is designed to have minimal resistance but to encourage small yet effective changes. 
  3. Respect the current process, roles, and responsibilities. No organisational changes should occur as the current roles and responsibilities have a value that needs to be preserved. It also ensures there is no emotional resistance. 
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at the top. The method promotes leadership and decision-making between all members. It does not matter which position a person is in, it needs to be acknowledged and embraced. 

Six core practices need to be implemented for the Kanban method to be successful:

  1. Visualise the workflow. You need to start by understanding the current workflow. Like the steps that are followed to move an item work request to a deliverable product. Columns can be created with cards that each item needs to go through from the beginning to the end. Here you can quickly identify the column that creates a bottleneck. The most basic way to create columns is to separate them into Backlog, To do, Ongoing, and Done. When work is being pushed down from management rather than the team pulling it at capacity, nothing gets finished. The team is constantly multitasking and context- switching and there is a reduction in the quality of work being created. The pull system allows the team to take new work as they can. Management defines the priority of the task before placing it in the To DO column. When a team member has an empty slot for work, they pull the task over to the in-process column.
  2. To prevent work from piling up ensure your team concentrates on finishing the old work, rather than starting something new. It ensures the team is never overburdened yet always has something to do.

    Limit the work in progress. By setting limits the team will focus on finishing outstanding work before starting new work. This is a critical core practice as it reduces the loss of interruptions that can seriously affect your team’s performance. 
  3. Manage the flow. When you are observing the flow efficiency you can identify problem areas. When these areas are identified you can smooth out the process and avoid delays. The aim is to constantly strive to make the process more efficient. 
  4. Make process policies explicit. The process needs to be defined, published, and confirmed clearly to everyone in the team. People do not want to feel useless, when they feel they play an important part in the process it will improve their performance. 
  5. Use feedback loops. For positive change to happen within a team, regular meetings to provide essential feedback are vital. The frequency of the meeting varies but they should remain regular, at a fixed time, and to the point. 
  6. Improve collaboratively. The method requires constant evaluation, analysis, and improvement. When the entire team understands the process, they can reach a consensus when a problem comes to light.

A great way to balance out the demand through the system is to measure and match the arrival and departure dates. It can easily be done by using a Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD). The diagram shows a set of bands that represent the overall process. The aim is to keep the distance between the bands equal to the amount of work. These bands are created by the arrival and departure rates of work. If the band starts getting bigger too quickly it means that the new tasks are arriving faster than what your team can handle. The tool allows you to track and compare the average amounts of items that can be processed each day. 

The mindset project leaders need to improve, create, change, and manage stable workflows is to inspire their team, lead by example, and build a culture of success through constant improvement.

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