Jon Miller's latest post on his agile kanban experiment got me thinking about how to create flow in managerial, white-collar work. There's so much variation in your daily job that it probably seems impossible to create a smooth flow of customer value. That's true to a certain extent. But no matter what kind of work you do, it comprises both creative, unpredictable elements, and mundanely repetitive tasks. And while it may be hard (or impossible) to bring flow to the creative areas of your job, it’s certainly possible to bring flow to the more repetitive areas. After all, managers have to do performance reviews. Medical technicians need to do preventative maintenance on hospital equipment. Artists have to buy paints (and pay the rent on time). Actors have to go to the gym and get regular Botox treatments. This work isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s eminently predictable, and it needs to get done.
What’s surprising, though, is how often these tasks are left to languish. Rather than being processed systematically so that they can be taken care of in the normal course of business, this "transactional" work lies about people’s offices like beached whales, consuming mental space and stinking up the joint. They’re not sexy, they’re generally not much fun, and they’re not urgent (until, of course, they are). But when they finally come due, everything stops – colleagues, customers, and family all take a back seat to the completion of these relatively unimportant tasks.
This is the antithesis of flow. It needlessly creates waste and stress.
A woman I know is the CFO of a large law firm in San Francisco. She knows that every month she has to present key financials to the executive committee. In fact, she knows the exact date of every monthly meeting for the whole year. Yet somehow, preparations for the meeting fall to the last minute and end up consuming a full day and a half right before the deadline. This frustrates her boss, who would like the opportunity to review the presentation a few days before the meeting – and it frustrates her direct reports, who can’t get any help from her for a day and a half each month. With better flow, she’d be able to delegate some of the work to her staff, deliver the report to her boss on time, and increase her accessibility to customers within the firm.
If you look closely at your own work, you’ll undoubtedly spot areas of predictability amidst the variability of your own job. These areas hold the potential for improved flow. For example, the law firm CFO could improve the flow of her monthly presentation by carving out small blocks of time in a regular pattern to prepare the report. In fact, breaking the work into smaller pieces with a predictable cycle might even enable her to delegate pieces of the job to her staff.
Obviously, there's still going to be unpredictability and uncontrollable variability in your work. Who knows - most of your work might fit into that category. But recognizing that some portion of your work is predictable, and taking advantage of it, would result in a greater ability to deploy your skills and creativity in solving unforeseen problems.