The Hustle and Flow of Lean Product Development


In times of cerebral duress, I’ve often found myself yearning for the quiet dignity of manual labor. While jobs that are composed of repetitive tasks can quickly become boring (and are not often financially rewarding), there is a romantic appeal to clear task goals and more frequent senses of accomplishment. Activities of invention and creativity, such as marketing and engineering, offer tremendous intellectual freedom, but often at the price of a lack of direction or confidence that you are doing the right things.

If my company had a shop floor, I actually wouldn’t mind spending a couple of weeks every year running a workcell and spending my time trying to hit throughput goals. Is this just a case of the grass being greener? Consider the following book excerpt about a study done to determine what conditions create the right environment for job satisfaction:

“The types of activities which people all over the world consistently report as most rewarding…involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of challenge…”

[p. 65, Lean Thinking, Womack & Jones, Simon & Schuster 1996]*

The authors of this study say that when these work elements are achieved, it creates a type of psychological ‘flow’ where the worker becomes so absorbed as to lose self-consciousness and sense of time. In other words, “time flies when you’re having fun.” An appropriate sports analogy would be a player who gets “in the zone,” such as a pitcher working on a no-hitter or a basketball player who just can’t miss a shot. Athletes who seem in a constant zone like Michael Jordan often report a sense of surreal suspension or slowdown of time as a result of being into the ‘flow’ of the game.

Most people have probably experienced this type of ‘flow’ somewhere in their personal or professional lives, often accompanied with a sense of “how can I do this again, but this time on purpose.” While the average person can not reach the level of performance of a Michael Jordan, or whoever the MJ of your particular discipline is, you would think that we could at a minimum reach the level of effective focus that a shop floor operator could enjoy. Let’s take a look at these elements of flow and how they relate to product development activity.

“…involve a clear objective…”

Is “make money” a clear enough objective? It might work in the boardroom, but doesn’t do much in the cubicle. Can you clearly state right now the objective of your current main project? Obviously, goals must be broken down into their constituent parts to become relevant. However, not enough companies, managers or just plain people can intuit the connection between “make money” and their particular individual task at hand. Your clear goal might be “design within X tolerance” or “complete focus groups by end of second quarter,” but what do we do with stuff like “make user friendly” or “appeal to alternative markets”? The effort to break down macro goals and connect them to individual goals can be consuming, but worthwhile, whether management relays this to you or you try to figure it out for yourself.

 “…need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions…”

Boy, this one hits home, doesn’t it? I’m guessing very few of you out there have a door on your office, and even though you can put those cute Marvin the Martian “do not disturb” signs outside your cube, how effective are they? While NPD is by nature a collaborative beast, there are many moments when intense focus is needed to accomplish a task. When people reach a ‘zone’, say when writing or creating a CAD drawing, they know that pausing may derail the creative flow, and often turn their phone off and dread simply having to go to the bathroom. But unlike a workcell, co-workers can much more easily enter your workspace and stop progress. Companies make a very big deal out of stopping an assembly line, but nobody will put up the same fuss over knocking on your wall when they can’t reach you by phone or email.

 “…clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective…”

Former New York City mayor, the honorable Ed Koch, was known for his catch phrase, “How’m I doin’ folks?” Man is an asynchronous being, and we like feedback. It doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative, people can usually anticipate which it’ll be anyway, but its loud silence that gets obsessed about and can cause problems. One theory is that most people withhold feedback because they are concerned about potential backlash (i.e. feedback about their feedback). The reality is probably that most of us don’t care about the nature of the feedback as long as it is objective and has the project’s success in mind, we just want to know what it is, so that we’ll know how to proceed and keep the flow going.

Clearly, it’s no epiphany that people are more comfortable when they know the parameters of their goals, are given reasonable conditions to succeed and understand what success actually looks like and how they contribute to it. Unfortunately, few managers consider this type of flow when trying to eke out greater performance from their teams. They will consider project management software, IT tools, collocation metrics, quality improvement task forces, outsourcing and all the other process improvement laxatives, when all they really needed to do was eat right in the first place.

Flow – it’s what’s for dinner.

* Note: While this was taken out of a book on lean manufacturing, it also sounds a lot like the key elements of TOC critical chain project management (specifically, the “road runner” method), which may explain TOC’s success in engineering environments where the staff is cooperative.

MRT Workshop: Second Generation Lean Product Development: Applying the Principles of Flow

Participants of this workshop each get a FREE copy of Don Reinertsen’s latest book which takes this issue to the next level, The Principles of Product Development Flow

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