Most continuous improvement efforts, either directly or indirectly, are centered on improving flow. Flow is the condition where work moves from one process to the next without stopping. Improving flow means taking out all the efficiencies that keep that continuous movement smooth and direct.
When flow doesn’t exist, it is not because it is unwanted. Even the most batch-oriented manufacturer would prefer flow, but they see many reasons why flow is not practical. These reasons—the things, both real and imagined, are known as barriers to flow.
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One of the challenges in implementing flow is that few people have ever seen it done particularly well, apart from on an assembly line. There are always reasons that people can identify why flow is out of reach.
Examples of Physical Barriers to Flow
Distance: Rather than transporting individual items, they are collected and shipped as a group.
Long Setup Times: When changing over tooling takes a long time, larger batches are run.
Batch-Oriented Machines: Some machines are designed to be most efficient with large runs. This is common for big CNC machines.
Poor Maintenance: Machines that break down frequently disrupt flow. The hedge is inventory.
Unreliable Deliveries: When there is no trust that parts will arrive on time, extras are kept on hand.
Unreliable Quality: If people think that many parts will be unsuitable or will require rework, extras will be kept on hand.
Approval Processes: The approver is seldom standing by, so work is piled up until the next opportunity to get the go-ahead.
Lack of Faith: Some people just don’t believe flow is possible, so don’t even try,
Establishing flow requires the systematic removal of these sorts of barriers.
Develop a commitment to implementing flow. Without agreement on that basic philosophy, progress will be extremely challenging.
Educate teams. Closely linked to number 1, teams must understand what flow is and what it looks like. A psychological barrier can be removed with a benchmarking trip, especially if employees are allowed to talk to their counterparts in the company with good flow.
Set clear goals. Flow doesn’t happen overnight. It will be a slow, steady, very rewarding journey.
Identify specific barriers and prioritize them. This will require root cause analysis to find the true drivers behind the barriers.
Create an action plan. People have full plates. Make an action plan that fits into their schedules. If the actual workload behind the plan doesn’t match available resources, the plan is worthless.
Track progress and adjust plans. This will likely be done as part of a monthly operations review, but frontline leaders will also need to monitor ongoing progress to stay on track.
Repeat. Developing flow is ongoing. Even world-class manufacturers still have barriers to flow that they continue to work on.