Flow production is one of many names used to describe a system of production that predominantly follows Lean principles.
It is typified by single units of work moving directly from one process to the next without stopping in queues. That state of streamlined motion is known as flow, and is the holy grail of Lean production.
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Because there is no governing body of Lean, the terminology is not, ironically, standardized. Flow production, continuous flow production, one-piece-flow production, JIT production, Lean production, and single-piece-flow production all overlap considerably, and are used interchangeably.
The term “flow production” though, focuses on the fact that Lean efforts often focus on streamlining the path of a product, service, or information through a value stream. That systematic removal of waste that slows down production is often demonstrated by the analogy of turning a meandering stream full of rocks, rocks, and obstacles into a straight, narrow, deep canal.
The opposite of flow production is batch and queue manufacturing. This form of production uses large batches, often the result of massive machines that are most efficient (locally) when they run a lot of the same item. These batches then sit queued up in front of the next production process, hence the name.
Benefits of Flow Production
Flow production has the benefit of significantly reducing lead time, as there is little waiting. It also has very little waste, but in truth, that is more of a function of creating flow than of flow itself. Massive kaizen (continuous improvement) efforts are needed to get to the point where flow production is possible.
Flow production creates a competitive advantage in that the companies using it tend to be more responsive than others. This advantage is exaggerated when the products are custom or have several different configurations. Little inventory needs to be kept in stock, as the products can be built to order quickly.
Drawbacks of Flow Production
Flow production requires a great deal of effort to remove the waste to streamline processes. Many organizations give up when they realize the up-front cost of establishing flow. It takes training to get the expertise to make improvements, and can take considerable trial and error to figure things out.
Often, unearthing one barrier to flow uncovers two or three more that must also be addressed. Creating flow production is a journey that many don’t have the commitment to see through.
Once flow is established, it also takes industrial discipline to follow. It is often tempting to violate processes for a quick fix. Unfortunately, those quick fixes tend to disrupt other parts of the organization, and make flow look less effective. Staying committed to flow production is a challenge for companies, especially in the early days, or if there is a senior manager who consistently makes decisions undercutting processes.