Managers all over the world embrace flow metrics and analytics to optimize their workflows and drive continuous improvement initiatives. And there is no doubt about it, this approach is foundational for achieving sustainable business agility and building resilience.

However, here is the caveat. You have to leverage your flow metrics effectively before you can make reliable improvement decisions.

And the most important thing that every manager should embrace is the fact that, without the context behind them, your charts are just colorful pictures.

There is no tool that provides absolute answers. Some patterns could be expected and perfectly acceptable in one context, and they could mean a complete disaster in another.

Remember, the tools can only give you direction. You should use that information to figure out what the actual problem behind the picture is to ensure your improvement initiative is heading in the right direction.

Without the Context behind Them, Your Flow Metrics Are Meaningless

Let’s analyze the Cumulative Flow Diagram below. This CFD pattern is called the “Bulging Bands”.

Flow metrics - Cumulative Flow Diagram

This is a pattern where one or more bands increase in thickness over time. It means that work in progress is increasing overall.

Now, we should ask the question, “What is causing WIP to increase?”.

Has the size of the team stayed the same? If the team has grown, an increase in WIP makes perfect sense, since there are now more people handling requests and their capacity has increased.

If that’s not the case though, we need to investigate for other clues. Are tasks being pushed by the management instead of being pulled in by the team? Are there any external blockers that they are not able to resolve, so they suspend the work and move on to the next task in the backlog? Is the team paying attention to the amount of work in progress in the first place?

You have to dig deeper to figure out the root cause of the problem. And understanding the obstacles that hinder your performance is a collaborative effort. Your team has to be part of this process.

Your flow metrics will fuel an informed discussion. And, to be able to come up with effective improvement decisions, you must have this discussion within your own context.

3 Tips to Make Reliable Process Improvement Decisions (All by Leveraging Your Flow Metrics)

Now, what does it take to make reliable improvement decisions using your flow metrics and analytics?

Here are a few tips that will help you move the needle and ensure your improvement efforts are paying off.

Tip #1: Focus On the Trends, Not the Numbers

Here’s the thing, whether or not your cycle time, throughput or flow efficiency are high or low is pretty much beside the point.

It doesn’t matter where you are now, there’s no need to place judgment on your current situation.

What is more important is how your trends are building over time. Is your cycle time going down and your throughput going up? Do you observe improvement in your performance?

If that’s the case, this means that the changes you’ve implemented are working. If not, you have to look back and see what has made your trends decline.

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

Never arrive at a meeting thinking you know the exact cause of the deviations.

You should involve your team in the discussion and ask them to share their perspective. There is always a narrative behind certain scenarios and the more points of view you gather, the more likely you are to identify the root cause of the problem.

Furthermore, everyone should be encouraged to share their opinion. Establishing an environment of trust, respect and appreciation is foundational for building autonomous teams. Always give them the opportunity to speak up.

Ask the question, “why is this trend changing” and then come up (collaboratively) with the reasons why. Sort all the impediments by impact. Escalate the external issues and take action on the internal ones.

Tip #3: Understand the Impact of Your Decisions

Continuous improvement initiatives are all about making experiments and measuring how the changes we have introduced impact our flow metrics’ trends.

If the initiative is successful, we make it a standard. If it fails, we embrace the shortcomings and turn them into new opportunities for improvement. There is no right or wrong here.

The only time that you should be worried is when a trend is shifting, but neither you nor your team know why this is happening.

You all have to be crystal clear about the impact of your decisions and how they affect your performance. Being predictable means that you are in control of your management practices. It means that when a drop or spike in your performance occurs, you understand the actual reason behind it.

Here is your action item: The next time you initiate your evolutionary improvement initiative, make a snapshot of your data. Then, on a weekly basis, compare your current flow metrics with the initial snapshot. Together with your team, analyze how the trends move over time and have a discussion about the results. If needed, adjust the course of action. Make sure that everyone understands why the trends are changing and is aligned with the expected outcome from the initiative. Then, repeat the exercise.

Your data is there, at your disposal. It is your key to enabling effective improvement decisions, so take advantage of it and leverage it effectively. Carry out regular collaborative discussions and measure the impact of your improvement efforts. As long as you’re consistent, you’ll see results. And consistency is the cornerstone of continuous improvement.

If you’re striving to enable self-managed teams and an environment of continuous improvement, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program.

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