Managing flow isn’t just about delivering results predictably. It’s also about making reliable data-driven decisions that lead to consistent business outcomes.

“Sonya, what exactly is flow?”

Simply put, flow means work goes smoothly without interruptions.

Think of this concept in the context of knowledge work. When a customer makes a request, it goes through a process. Flow in knowledge work is all about the movement of these requests through your process. The goal is to optimize that movement to deliver results in an efficient predictable manner.

So, how do we measure flow?

The 4 Flow Metrics That Matter

When it comes to measuring and improving flow, there are four very simple metrics you should pay attention to: cycle time, throughput, work in progress, and average age of work in progress.

These metrics are tightly linked to your team’s performance and are pivotal to enhancing your business outcomes. Let’s explore each of them in more detail.

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#1 Cycle Time

When you promise to fulfill a customer request, the first thing to figure out is, “When will it be ready?” What matters most to our clients is when they’ll get what they asked for. We measure the time from when we commit to the work to when we deliver it – that’s our cycle time.

Cycle time tells us how long it takes for a task to go through our delivery process. Monitoring cycle time helps us gauge our team’s performance and predict when tasks will be completed.

#2 Throughput

Beyond knowing how quickly we deliver customer value, as agile practitioners, we also want to measure how much work we complete in a given time.

Spoiler alert! This metric is especially useful when you have a set release date and need to figure out how much work can be finished within that timeframe. We call this metric throughput.

Throughput is a basic measure of how many tasks we finish over a specific time period, like per day, week, or month.

#3 Work in Progress

The third essential flow metric is Work in Progress (WIP). WIP measures the number of items currently in progress, and it has a direct impact on both your cycle time and throughput.

It’s essential to manage and maintain a consistent WIP to optimize your flow. A steady WIP results in predictable cycle times and a stable throughput.

These core flow metrics are interconnected through the Little’s Law equation. Always remember that any change in one of these metrics will invariably affect one, if not both, of the others.

#4 Average Age of Work in Progress

The last metric when it comes to flow, and I’d argue the most important one, is the average age of work in progress.

To ensure a smooth flow of work, you need to focus on two main things: keeping the number of tasks in progress (WIP) consistent and making sure the age of those tasks is consistent as well. Predictable delivery systems are founded on that principle.

The age of a task and cycle time are essentially the same thing. The only difference is how we measure them: cycle time measures completed tasks only, while task age considers those still in progress.

Your cycle time doesn’t take into account your current work in progress. Although you might have a very low average cycle time, if your tasks sit and age in your process and eventually get released at a later stage, your average cycle time will go through the roof.

This is why it is so important to track your average age of WIP, and regularly compare it against your average cycle time. Ideally, these two numbers should be similar.

3 Simple Tips to Elevate Your Flow Metrics

Now, using these flow metrics, we aim to optimize the flow of work and drive continuous improvement. However, here’s what I want you to remember:

Without context, your flow metrics are just numbers.

Flow metrics can only give you direction if you understand what they mean in your own business context. This understanding allows you to spot patterns that might be acceptable in one situation but disastrous in another. To do this effectively, you need to delve deeper and uncover the root causes of any deviations.

Here are three tips for making reliable process improvement decisions and elevating your flow metrics:

Tip #1 Focus on Trends, Not Numbers

Here’s the thing:

Whether your cycle time, throughput, or WIP is high or low right now is pretty much beside the point. There is no need to judge your current situation.

What truly matters is how your trends are developing over time. Is your cycle time decreasing, and your throughput increasing? Are you observing performance improvement?

If so, it means the changes you’ve made are effective. If not, it’s time to review what caused your trends to decline.

Improvement is not indicated by single numbers. Avoid labeling your current situation as good or bad based on absolute values. Instead, focus on monitoring the trends of your metrics over time.

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Tip #2 Don’t Assume You Have All the Answers

Never go into a meeting assuming you already know the exact reasons for deviations.

Involve your team in the discussion and ask for their perspectives. Behind every situation, there’s a story. The more viewpoints you gather, the better your chances of identifying the root cause of the problem.

Additionally, encourage everyone to express their opinions. Creating an environment of trust, respect, and appreciation is fundamental for both improving your performance and growing autonomous teams. Always give your teammates the opportunity to speak up.

Start the conversation by asking, “Why is this trend changing?” and then collaboratively come up with the reasons. Organize the impediments based on their impact. Escalate the external issues and take action on the internal ones.

Tip #3 Understand the Impact of Your Decisions

In knowledge work, we conduct experiments and measure how the changes we implement impact our flow metrics. That’s what continuous improvement is all about.

If an initiative succeeds, it becomes a standard practice. If it doesn’t, we use it as an opportunity for further improvement. There’s no absolute right or wrong in this process.

The only time you should be concerned is when a trend is shifting, and neither you nor your team understands why.

It’s crucial that you and your team have a clear understanding of how your decisions affect performance. Predictability means having control over your management practices, so when there’s a performance change, you know the exact reason behind it.

Here’s your action item: When you kick off your improvement initiative next time, start by capturing your data. P.S. Connect our analytics suite to your management platform to get started!

Then, on a weekly basis, compare your current flow metrics with the initial snapshot. Work with your team to examine how the trends change over time and discuss the outcomes. If necessary, make adjustments to your strategy.

Ensure everyone comprehends the reasons behind the trend shifts and aligns with the initiative’s expected outcomes. Then, repeat the process.

Your data is readily available and is your key to making effective improvement decisions. Make the most of it by engaging in regular collaborative discussions and assessing the impact of your improvement efforts.

The secret here is consistency. As long as you’re consistent, you’ll see results.

Alright my friend, that’s all for today. I’m looking forward to seeing you next week, same time and place for more managerial insights. Have a productive week ahead!

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