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Lean Tools, Training, and Systems

Lean Flow

The single most important Lean Objective

What is Lean Flow?

Make it; Move it

Flow spigot

Perfect flow is happening when...

the thing you are processing

(which could be a product, or small batch of liquid, or a patient, or a sales order...)

flows through your process in a very small batch

(ideally one at at time)

and never stops when handed off between steps

(which will become REALLY obvious when you map your process using a value stream map)

and you have completely eliminated every one of the 7 types of waste

Defects. Overproduction. Inventory. Over-processing. Motion. Transportation and handling. Waiting.

and your workers are able to perform their work

in a state of mental flow


What is a state of mental flow?

  1. The worker sees and understands the whole process and how the parts fit together
  2. The worker has high degree of control and involvement
  3. The task requires full attention — it is neither boring nor overwhelming
  4. There are few or no interruptions
  5. There is immediate feedback

from the book
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
by Csikzentmihalyi


Benefits of Lean Flow

1) Flow enables Pull

Once you personally experience being a senior team leader in a lean production environment...

you will come to appreciate that the biggest benefit that you will gain from your lean journey to design your value streams to flow...

is that flow enables Pull so you can deliver only what your customer wants only when they want it

Pull processes

The biggest benefit of Flow
is to enable Pull,
so you can deliver
only what your customer wants
only when they want it

2) Flow Improves Safety

Less exertion and less heavy equipment traffic = less accidents.

3) Flow Improves Quality

When you make small batches, problems are detected (and fixed) much more quickly.

You are much less likely to have a large batch of things that all have the same defect.

4) Flow Improves Speed of Delivery

Eliminating time waiting for the rest of the batch to finish, and time waiting between processes can enable you to confidently promise your customers a delivery time that might be less than half of what they currently tolerate.

5) Lean Flow Improves Cash Flow

Less inventory = more cash available.

Less inventory also = less scrap, which also = more cash available.

Paper waste

All lean objectives
reduce or eliminate
the 7 types of waste

6) Flow Improves Productivity

Small batch flow reduces every one of the 7 deadly types of waste:

Less defects. Less overproduction. Less inventory. Less over-processing.
Less motion. Less transportation and handling. Less waiting.

7) Flow Improves Clarity

Small batch flow reduces confusion. Fewer things can go wrong.

Problems are more visible. (and a problem has to be seen before it can be fixed)

8) Flow Improves Morale

Fire fighting isn't pleasant.

People like things to flow smoothly.

9) Flow Enables Offense

The second-biggest benefit of self-healing flow is that your managers and senior leaders are freed up to focus their attention on offense.

Rather than battling defensive threats, they are pursuing offensive opportunities.

For example, they might focus their laser-like attention to answer the question:

How can we better serve our customers and crush our competitors with all this time and money that we freed up through our continuous improvement successes?

hockey player

Flow enables your players
to crack some heads


Barriers to Lean Flow

Barriers to flow can be any condition or action that inhibits the uninterrupted flow of work

Bookmark this checklist, and come back often

It is a wise idea to bookmark this page in your web browser and come back to it whenever your team is using any of the following lean tools and systems to identify, reduce, and eliminate common barriers to flow

Value Stream Map

Functional Flowchart

Checklist: Common Barriers to Flow


Batching is the number 1 barrier to lean flow

This gets confusing, because batching is not always a bad thing, and can be a helpful technique to improve flow, especially in a service or office environment.

But that's the exception to the rule.
in ANY environment, (including service or office), the rule is: Minimize batch sizes as much as you can.

Piles of any kind.

Piles of inventory are easy to spot (once you attune your mind to look for them)

Stacks of paper or unread emails require your lean leaders to invent creative Visual Management Systems to make them visible.

Standard Work template

Your Standard Work template
is your most common weapon
to identify and minimize batches


Incorrect identification, selection, or placement of pacemaker.

Shared resources.

Your value stream mapping template (VSM.xlsx) has terrific systems to visually highlight shared processes,

but your goal isn't to just notice them; your goal is to minimize or eliminate them,
or maximize throughput through them, using your Shared Process Design template (vsmShared.docx)


Quality Problems

Quality problems are the most common and most costly interruptions to the flow of value added activities


Or worse yet... defective scrap


Your 5S, OEE, and Preventive Maintenance templates are your best weapons to minimize downtime

Change Overs

Interruptions / Switching Tasks

See training for SMED Quick Changeovers


Your Swim Lane Cross Functional Flowchart is your best tool for processes with handoffs

Unavailable staff

5S Sustainment

OEE template



Use your Value Stream Map to analyze transportation between your own processes

and your Supply Chain Map to analyze transportation between supply chain partners

Physical layout

Use your Layout Diagram

Wasted human motion

Layout Diagram

The usual suspects

Sloppy (or missing) Standard Work

Any obstructions to the Lean Ideals

Any obstructions to the Toyota Four Rules In Use

Any of the 7 Deadly Wastes

Any of the Hansei questions for mental reflection

cartoon: lost


Any management policies that inadvertently encourage undesirable behaviors

Prioritization rules / practices

Non-lean accounting systems that cause cause end-of-month or end-of-quarter demand spikes

Individual vs. team rewards that encourage unintended sub-optimal choices

Organization, management, reporting, and rewards by functional silos (rather than by value stream)

Lack of effective Lean Management Systems

It's real easy to see whether an organization has lean flow.

Just look for the Visual Management Systems.

Acid Test for Visibility of Flow

When your lean visual management systems are in place for a work area, you should be ready for the acid test.

Invite someone unfamiliar with the work area to stand at the clearly-marked Process Observation Point,

ideally with no further instruction, but perhaps with a brief explanation for:

1) how to read your at-a-glance visual control chart that makes heijunka flow visible for this process

2) how often it is updated — which usually coincides with your Pitch Pulse Cycle

(which is measured in hours; not days)

and then ask...

Is this process flowing as expected?

The answer should be either yes or no. (red or green... no yellow)

Acid Test for your entire Lean Transformation

This Acid Test for Visibility of Flow also doubles as the Acid Test for your entire Lean Transformation.

Yes, it is THAT important.


Lean Flow is (by far)
your single most important lean objective



Lean Flow requires passionate leadership

If (and only if)...

every one of the highest level executives and managers for your value stream deeply understands the benefits of lean flow well enough to passionately share those benefits in their own words in thousands of teaching moments over the course of thousands of days...

then you are ready to begin

a shared lean journey toward lean transformation.

yellow brick road

Road map for a typical
Lean Transformation

If not... then don't even start

You are wasting your time, and the time of everyone around you.

Rather than choosing the goal of lean transformation, you will be much better off starting with some far less ambitious goal, like perhaps improving the flow of one process, or reducing one quality problem, or launching your first 5S event.

And that's okay. That's how most lean journeys start.

But it's never too early to at least start daydreaming about how your inter-related teams might work together differently... if every one of your top leaders... became truly passionate champions... of lean flow

Respect your Boundaries

Often, your Team Charter will specifically discourage proposing changes to corporate policies that are unlikely to be changed within a short time period.

But that doesn't mean that you can't have a heart-to-heart with your team's Executive Change Agent, to perhaps begin the slow process of discretely encouraging some senior executives to more carefully consider possible negative impacts that might counterbalance some of the reasons that resulted in some policies that might have been shaped by some previous management conditions perhaps long ago.

sacred cow

To barbecue Sacred Cows requires patience and tact


How to get Lean Flow

The fundamentals of Lean Flow

  1. Follow the road map
  2. Flow where you can. Pull where you can't. Only push with a FIFO Lane
  3. Fewest possible information control points (ideally 1) with Pacesetter far downstream
  4. Make flow visible — using Visual Management Systems
  5. Find ways to smooth the level of demand
  6. Build to your Pitch Pulse Rate, and make pulse visible
  7. Swarm problems with your Lean Management Systems
  8. Standardize work — so that fewer and fewer problems need swarming

Your lean objective
is throughput, not output

(Inventory that is sold,
not just produced)

Follow the Roadmap

Flow is the primary goal of any Lean Journey to Lean Transformation.

The road map is well-worn and proven.

Unlike an (endless) Continuous Improvement Journey, a Lean Journey has a clearly defined end, with an Acid Test to know when you get there.

yellow brick road

Road map for a typical
Lean Transformation


Flow where you can; Pull where you can't

The most important rule of Lean Flow is:

  1. Establish islands of Continuous Process Flow wherever you can.
  2. Pull where you can't.
  3. Only push with a FIFO Lane


Few control points; far downstream

One hallmark of a non-lean system

is when many (or all !!!) processes in the value stream receive their own 'list of things to work on' for the day or shift.

A lean system

will the fewest possible information control points (ideally just the one pacesetter)

and the Pacesetter is as far downstream as possible (nearest to the customer)


Visual Management Systems

Visual Management Systems are a cornerstone of value streams that are designed for flow.

While it is not true to say...

"If you see Visual Management Systems; the value stream must be designed to flow"

(not true... because there is more to it)

It is true to say...

If you don't see Visual Management Systems, flow is unlikely

Every work center (both on the production floor and in the office) should have some form of visual cue that is ideally obvious and self-evident enough so that anyone walking briskly past that work area should be able to easily tell you:

How 'flowy' (vs. clumpy) are things moving through that work area?

That visual cue might be anything...

It might be a flag, a light, a colored card...

It might be the plastic bin beneath the window in the doctor's office where you put your patient intake form once you have completed it

It might be incoming or outgoing inventory on shelves with clearly marked min & max levels

It might be a kanban cards, golf balls, triangles, or any kanban signals

It might be a FIFO lane (PullQ.xlsx)

It might be a visual Job Log (JobLog.xlsx)

It might be a large-print MRP schedule noting status with colored magic markers

It might be a heijunka box, or a Pitch Chart (PitchChart.xlsx)

Pitch Chart
Pull Queue Status
Job Log

Whatever it is...

It's not hidden inside a computer, it's really obvious and visual, and it is displaying real time data that gets updated at least a few times per shift.


Find ways to smooth the level of demand

Executive teams routinely pay consultants thousands of dollars per day to listen to conversations that start with:

"We can't control our customers."

"Our customer isn't Toyota. They don't give us 6 months visibility of steady demand."

"Demand leveling will never work here. We're different."

If the consultant is worth the money, the conversations end with:

"Wow... that changes everything."

"We completely eliminated short and mid-term forecasts. Wow."

"So many of these lean practices seem so much more possible now."

Pull processes

Your lean objective
is to allow customer demand to pull your deliverables through your processes

If the consultant isn't worth the money, the conversations end with:

"We tried Lean a while back, but it didn't work here."

"Our attempted changes stuck for a little while, and then something was always coming up that caused people to revert back to our proven ways of doing things."

"The Lean systems that we tried were too fragile. They just couldn't adapt to our unique environment."

Sorry... Systems2win does not offer on site sensei consulting, but you might learn something on our training pages for heijunka load leveling, and ideas for how to deal with unlevel demand, and you can request an introduction to a consultant that is familiar with your Systems2win tools.


Build to your Pitch Pulse, and make it visible

It is often said that

"Takt Time is the heartbeat that sets the pace of production"

but that's only partially true

The problem is that you can't see Takt Time

and if you can't see it, you can't manage it

Pitch Pulse... or more correctly 'Pulse made visible'

enables every single person in every team to know at the turn of every Pulse Cycle...

(which is usually at least twice per shift)


Are we on schedule? or not?


Swarm problems

Lean Flow produces (and requires) higher quality than Batch and Queue

Everyone wants the higher quality that Lean Flow produces, but is your senior management sincerely committed to creating the conditions for the higher quality that Lean Flow requires?

See our online training to learn more about Lean Flow vs. Batch and Queue, and use your Quality Improvement tools when you swarm quality problems


Every lean tool needs
a corresponding
Lean Coaching System

Swarm problems with your Lean Management Systems

It's easier to identify problems than to implement countermeasures for problems.

It's easy for your systems for 'problem identification' to soon overwhelm your systems for 'problem solving'.

If it becomes commonplace for problems to get identified, but not swarmed, then it won't be long before the talk around the water cooler sounds like:

"Why bother?

"They don't care."

"This is a waste of time."

Standardize work

Standardize work — so that fewer and fewer problems need swarming.

It would be hard to count how many times in this training web site we have proposed that...

Standard Work is the single most important component in your lean toolkit

If people just backslide back to their old habits, what's the point of even trying to improve?

Fire fighting is time-consuming, expensive, and not very fun

The goal of every swarming event is not just to 'solve the problem', but (more importantly), to 'prevent that from every happening again'

At this phase of your lean journey, these tools become your best friends:


Is it your job to put out fires?
or to prevent them?

Learn more about Lean Flow

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