Flow in the automotive industry is something that has been developed over many years and its use of moving production lines that we see on television and written into articles has influenced many people’s paradigms about flow.
As we know, a moving line can help to eliminate vast amounts of waste, which is why it’s so effective in repetitive manufacturing such as automotive. Unfortunately this vision of flow has also set many peoples view about what real flow is and can unfortunately block their understanding about the principles behind it and how it can be applied in their business.
Flow is much more than just lining things up so that items move from one place to another. It’s obviously a great thing to do and difficult to argue that doing it isn’t effective just think of the impact on the 8 wastes of doing this to a process. However we shouldn’t forget why this is necessary in the first place.
Flow is fundamentally about organising work so that value can be delivered to the customer at the rate that they want to receive it. We think of this as the heart beat of the process or in Lean terms the Takt Time (i.e. the rate at which work needs to be done in order to meet the customer demand).
All the other stuff about moving lines etc. is about how to optimise the work in the least waste way to do this – so the principle of flow is to deliver to Takt, not to setup moving production lines.
With this in mind we can then start thinking about flow in your business. The first step is to identify “what is it that flows?” Is this a product, information, a patient, a decision, a recruitment position that needs filling, a purchase order, etc.? This definition may be harder than it initially seems, but is a crucial step and goes right back to one of the fundamental Lean principles of defining value from the viewpoint of the customer.
Once we have defined this value then we can make it flow careful study to understand how to break down the work allows us to then reorganise it such that each of the process elements can be completed within the Takt time. Then aligning each of these process elements allows the value to flow from start to finish delivering to Takt.
So it’s not about cars (although they have been at it for a while and have learned a lot along the way).
Flow is about truly understanding value in your business and organising work so that it can be delivered in the least waste way and your customers can get what they want when they want it.