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It's all about flow
What's something I know about the world that other people don't realize?
It is all about flow.
It is not all about flow, but flow is a big part of it and it’s a hidden part. I don’t find it’s a common view to adopt when improving yourself or the human systems around you.
What do I and everyone I know usually think it’s about? Optimization. Willy-nilly, constant, and everywhere optimization. Productivity hacks galore. I don’t really dabble much in the productivity world. Instead, what I do is I rush. I constantly press and rush. In the flow books I’ve read or am reading/rereading this looks like constantly expediting an order or project or putting out fires.
Instead, one could find a balance of flow and then move from that balance to increase the flow. But flow of what? That depends on the system. More specifically, it depends on what the system supplies/what’s demanded of the system. What the point of the system even is. In physicist, Eliyahu Goldratt’s book The Goal one of the first works on flow, we start where we should always start. What’s the point? The guru character in the book, asks the protagonist Alex Rogo, what’s the point of your little manufacturing plant that you care so much about? Rogo has no idea. And that, to me, usually is the sign of a very good question.
The answer the guru is leading the main character, Rogo, to and where he eventually arrives on his own, kind of, isn’t my favorite but is probably accurate. Make money. It’s also the simplest way to put it, but it’s not the fullest story to my mind and that fact made it hard for me to apply the ideas in the book a bit more broadly. However, I made the connection a few days ago that “making” money, a bit more abstractly, is what happens when a demand is supplied. Supply and demand is a common enough abstraction. Rephrasing the goal from the book, I say the point is to supply what’s demanded. Of course, not anything demanded but what your customers in particular demand from you. So to rephrase in a way that’s more applicable to a broader swath of efforts in the world, what’s the point? The point is to supply what’s demanded.
In an ideal, say business or manufacturing plant, all you have to do to supply what’s demanded is one thing. It is as simple as possible. Like maybe you can press one button and do nothing else. However, nearly everything that’s demanded nowadays takes more than 1 step to supply. More often than not, there are many steps involved in supplying a demand. This is where flow comes in. It’s all about balancing the flow through the system that supplies the demand with that demand. Get the product or service to the demanding customer at just the right time they are demanding it. A delay might mean they go with a competitor.
How do you balance the flow of what’s supplied/demanded through a given system? There is a whole world (mostly of books) to discover that helps you do this. In short, the best way to not balance the flow is to start a race to the bottom by focusing all efforts on what are called “local optimizations.” What this might look like is making sure everyone in the system is always busy. Or for me, doing something every second of my day, rushing from one thing to the next, or rushing through things I’ve decided to focus on. Obviously, if it’s important, I can note that and focus my time and attention on it. Rushing about, to me, stems from trying to do too many things rather than judiciously choosing what I will focus on and what I will not focus on.
Why is this what it’s all about? Flow and not optimizing every little thing or rushing all the time everywhere? It’s because of nature. Maybe not exactly nature but more like a combination of fundamental truths that Goldratt calls, statistical fluctuations and dependent events. Because the human and organizational systems that supply demands are complex, or at the very least involve more than a couple steps, the result is, constraints exist in the system. Constraints, like friction, are natural in any systems and honoring their presence and using the information they provide can tell us how best to balance flow. This information can help us calculate the optimal rate a product or service should flow through the system.
I’ve always been interested in limits and therefore optimizations. But also, there’s so much pain in people’s experiences and organizations that need not be. By focusing on balancing flow we no longer need to force, or rush, or deliver late or burnout, or race to the bottom, or do unfocused and suboptimal work. Wouldn’t that be nice?