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Create Flow

If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it.

– Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

Those of us in the Lean world are accustomed to discussing “flow,” where work is performed in a steady manner to reduce unevenness (mura). Activities are synchronized, layouts are optimized, and resources are available exactly where and when they are needed in order to match the pace set by the true demand for a product or service. The operation just hums along creating value for the customer. Well, “just” is a bit of a misnomer, as achieving flow can be very difficult.

The concept of flow was developed by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist of Hungarian descent and professor at Claremont Graduate University. (I remember being introduced to Csíkszentmihályi’s work decades ago in a psychology class, and have recently become reacquainted with him while researching motivation and productivity.) Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as being completely absorbed by what you are doing, and energized, with the creative juices flowing. Similarly, he once explained flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Many of us think of flow as “being in the zone.” It is truly a positive, invigorating experience, as opposed to “hyperfocus,” which can be negative.

Flow has parallels with concepts in religion and philosophy. Buddhism talks about “action with inaction” and Taoism has “doing without doing. The Hindu Ashtavakra Gita and BhagavadGita have similar descriptions. Hippocrates said “there is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.”

Csíkszentmihályi began researching the concept out of a fascination with artists and other professionals who became so engrossed in their work that they forgot about everything else, sometimes even basic needs such as food or sleep. Components of flow include a challenge-skill balance (when a person’s skill level is nearly equal to the difficulty of the task at hand), the merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task, transformation of time, and the autotelic experience. Flow happens when the necessary skill level and challenge environment are high. The ability to be creative and accomplished in such a situation is very fulfilling.

Is Csíkszentmihályi’s flow different than Lean flow? Maybe not. Completely involved, every action following inevitably from the previous, using skills to the utmost, clarity of goals, immediate feedback, curiosity, humility—to me, it sounds like a finely-tuned manufacturing or office work cell.

The comparison has merit. In addition to his research on flow from an individual perspective, Csíkszentmihályi also researched “group flow,” where both individuals as well as the group are able to achieve flow. The characteristics of group flow are:

  • Workplace reconfigurability, mostly standing.
  • Charts for information inputs, flowcharts, project summaries, results, open topics, and parking lots.
  • Organized work cells.
  • Experimentation.
  • Visual controls of process, movement, and status.

The use of visual controls, open and transparent communication, and experimentation also add to the similarities between flow and Lean. One of the reasons Lean work cells perform well is that they create a fulfilling, productive, and improving operation by leveraging and rewarding the brains of humans, helping them to reach a state of flow as they do their work. When this happens, the operation does hum along and create value for the customer.