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Stop on the ramp and take your hand off the horn: a brief introduction to flow concepts

A few years ago, when I was in the best shape of my life and on a long-awaited vacation to the southwestern USA, I experienced something unexpected on the endless highways around the desert metropolis of Phoenix.

Heading out on a morning drive with the GPS (SatNav) as my lifeline, I was doing fine. However, just as I found my entrance ramp and began to accelerate, preparing to merge, I had to abruptly stop for a red light a few meters before fully entering the freeway. A small, inconspicuous traffic light that quickly changed to green - and back to red as I drove past, slightly bewildered.

"That was odd - those crazy Americans!", I thought as I continued my excursion in the unfamiliar territory, mildly puzzled.

Variance and turbulence: Too much chaos

But was it really that odd? I wondered why the authorities had installed such a "flashing light" and found there is actually an official term for it, "ramp metering." It has been tried here in my own country: a (Danish) report from the Road Directorate (Vejdirektoratet) describes the results of an experiment on the Helsingore motorway back in the early '90s. By breaking down the incoming traffic into smaller, more evenly distributed "chunks," it became easier for drivers to make space for each other without braking or swerving too much. The smoother flow of cars resulted in savings in travel time, fuel consumption, and reduced air pollution.

Combating this kind of irregularity, or variance, is a central aspect of improving flow. Because the more turbulence, the slower it goes. (In this video, you can see another example.)

Queues and bottlenecks: Too many "traffic jams"

Earlier on the trip, I got caught in a massive traffic jam during rush hour outside Las Vegas. People honked like crazy, weaved desperately, and squeezed through lanes so closely and aggressively that most of the time, my heart was in my throat inside my protective steel box. This experience is a good example of how bottlenecks can occur, limiting flow. In this case, of cars on the freeway.

And, of course, hardly anyone got anywhere. Not only did all attempts to manoeuvre just make things worse by increasing turbulence (i.e., variance), but when the volume of cars approaches the limit of the road's capacity, things come to a halt anyway. You have probably experienced this yourself: pressing the horn doesn't help when there's a traffic jam on the motorway. Traffic jams, a.k.a. queues, are something we closely monitor in flow thinking because they give us an early indication that things are about to get delayed.

Overloading and perpetual delays: Just too much

We see this kind of overload, or overburden, everywhere, and no place in society can claim exemption. Cases pile up in the legal system, we wait months and years to get attention in the healthcare system, hundreds of people stand in front of us in line at the supermarket, IT solutions are always delayed: queues stretch out before us as far as the eye can see, and things drag on forever. It's just too much.

Overproduction: Lots of activity, questionable value

You may have heard that in traditional flow thinking, there is much talk about avoiding “waste”, with overproduction being one of the worst examples. We just keep going with our own thing, without considering whether we overwhelm those we pass it on to. Often, at the same time - or perhaps because of it - we lose sight of whether what we're doing actually contributes to value creation in a broader perspective, seen from the point of view of those who we ultimately serve.

The ”flow trinity": Overloading, too much variance, and too little value

In traditional flow thinking, overloading, variance, and insufficient value creation are referred to as the three "sins" in many work processes. (They even have their own Japanese terms if you're interested.)

The important point here is that all three are equally important to making things flow smoothly: we must reduce variance, combat overloading, and avoid overproduction and other activities of questionable value. And they often manifest themselves as queues and bottlenecks, which we must therefore keep a close eye on. A significant part of the leadership task, therefore, is to create visibility around these conditions and to provide good conditions for continuous flow improvement.

Find your own queues

Thinking in all three dimensions gives us more options for action. And as the example of "ramp metering" shows, there are plenty of suggestions in flow thinking for what we can do in practice. For example, have you noticed what they do at the supermarket when the checkout queue gets too long?

But first, ask yourselves: where are the queues in your organization, why do they occur, and what are the consequences? Where is there overloading, excess variance, and insufficient value-creating activity? That transparency is a crucial stepping stone towards minimizing queues and thus creating better conditions for flow efficiency.

In general, try to explore all the places where we see queues and queue phenomena in our everyday lives. For example, in front of the security line the next time you're heading to distant shores.

Ulrik H. Gade

Follow me on LinkedIn - questions and comments are very welcome Want to know more? Check out our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership.


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