How does flow affect value delivery?

published on 01 November 2022

It's fair to say that few things have defined the world as much as water. From explorers charting a course across the ocean, to agricultural innovations that fed modern civilisation; our lives would not exist without it.

Many of us take water for granted. It has become instantly accessible and available in abundance across large parts of the globe, although only 74% of our planet's population has access to a safely managed water source. We rarely have to concern ourselves with water management, let alone the work required to harness it.

But water deserves our consideration, not only in support of those without access to it, but also because a striking parallel exists between the challenges humans have faced to tame nature and contemporary knowledge work.

Many organisations have discovered a well of ideas, but they are struggling to put it to good use. They know that it will be essential to their continued existence, but aren't quite sure how to benefit from the value that exists below the surface.

The first process that most businesses attempt to harness is based on individual effort. It is the equivalent of asking everyone to grab a bucket and carry what they can manage; the water will be moving in no time. However, as the buckets are migrated, water sloshes and falls to the ground, while people quickly tire from repeatedly hiking between the village and the well.

Expecting people to work in isolation leads to high effort, low efficiency results. Everyone carries an individual burden of work, and there is no opportunity to benefit from the different skills and strengths that exist within the group.

One logical process improvement is to increase alignment and leverage the power of the collective. Rather than moving the people, water should be moved between buckets. People can coordinate their efforts, and those with different abilities can embody roles that enable others to work more efficiently.

However, this approach results in constant hand-offs, and every time water moves between buckets an amount either splashes to the ground or the group has to move more slowly to reduce waste. Each person is a dependency in the chain, and when one has to stop working it takes time to fill the gap they leave.

At least working as a group is less strenuous than working in isolation, but there is a whole new level of effort required to synchronise activitiy and minimise losses. Any organisation that attempts to undertake knowledge work in this way will experience the same challenges. Every hand-off results in a waste of value, effort, and time.

So what is the optimal solution? One innovation holds many of these answers: Pipes.

As water flows down a pipe there is no physical effort required, no splashing or sloshing that leads to waste, and zero delay to liquid availability. Long lived, properly sized, cross-functional teams are the equivalent to organisational pipes. They are the conduit for effective value delivery.

With zero hand-offs and alignment around well defined goals, teams are able to achieve valuable outcomes. They ensure that their work is visible, limit work in progress, and automate repeatable activity; all of which support fast flow and reduce lead time.

Of course, flow must be sustainable. Just as fast moving water in a pipe suffers from higher friction and leads to quicker corrosion, teams that prioritise efficiency over effectiveness are liable to wear themselves out. Creating stable team foundations and a psychologically safe environment are fundamental to long term success.

Ultimately, fast flow can result in outcomes that many organisations aren't even aware of. The parallels between water and knowledge work don't end with a simple delivery journey from A to B. Instead, the journey itself offers unseen value.

The formation of high performing teams in an organisation that is bursting with potential are the equivalent of hydroelectric generators. Their energy can fuel culture change, support sustainability, and increase the delivery of value.

Water has defined the world we live in, and it could help to define the future of your organisation. However, someone might have to invest their effort in pumping the well to get the process moving. Are you going to be the person who enables fast flow?


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