08th of Nov '20

What our corona problems have to do with the agile idea of "flow"

traffic by night


The Kanban Community Days are currently taking place. ( highly recommended, if you still want to participate you can find all information here ) If you have ever heard of Kanban, the concept of "Flow" will ring a bell. Flow basically describes the flow of work through a system (e.g. an organisation). Important is the focus on the flow of work, from the idea to the customer - independent of departments, divisions etc. But why is the flow so important? Isn't my organisational structure good enough to get the work done in an optimised way? Almost everyone knows an example of a company where you have the feeling that "nothing works anymore". Projects are started on a regular basis, but do not finish. This is a classic picture of an overloaded system. Let me briefly explain why this flow is so important and what it has to do with Corona

Why do I need "Flow"?

The principle is actually quite simply explained. Imagine a traffic jam on the motorway. The motorway is normaly four-lane. Now there has been an accident. The clean-up work allows the police to clear only one lane. A traffic jam occurs because more cars enter the jam than cars can leave it. The system is therefore overloaded. Now you can argue: The system just has only one lane of exit, instead of the previous four - so it takes four times longer. This is not wrong at first - however, it neglects a very important aspect: I am "at the mercy" of my system. Because as long as I have not processed the traffic jam, I cannot process a more important task. As long as all my elements in the system (cars/projects) are equally important, that may be ok. But in reality this is rarely the case. There is always a change that makes this one new project very important. If my system is overloaded, it feels like it takes forever until the new and important project is implemented. To stay with the analogy of traffic jams: The important element that I have to get through the traffic jam immediately is the ambulance. If I don't have an clear lane for it, it has to endure the entire traffic jam until it reaches the front - but by that time it may already be too late. The same applies to the project that is so important now. Sometimes a project only makes sense if it can be completed within a certain time. And that's why flow is so important. Managing flow allows a company to react quickly to new events - but only if my system (organisation) is not already overloaded.

What does this have to do with Corona?

We have exactly the same problem in Germany right now with the tests. We are talking about overburdened health authorities and "traffic jams" of tests. The problem with corona tests, however, is not only the total amount of tests my system can process, but (very important) also the speed with which my system can handle new requests. If my corona test during peak seasons takes two weeks to be completed (I'm exaggerating), it is no longer possible to derive any meaningful action from it.

And that's why the proposals are now going in exactly the same direction that we know from agile methods such as Kanban: To optimise the flow. Because if the quantity of requests is too much, I have to prioritise so that the important things can still run through my system on time. Of course, the solution to the corona problem is more complex than simply increasing lead time - but the current situation shows that flow is a key success factor in critical systems.