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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Flow System: Getting Fast Customer Feedback and Managing Flow

The Flow System: Getting Fast Customer Feedback and Managing Flow

Key Takeaways

  • The Flow System is a guide to learning and understanding, not a prescription.
  • Tools are contextual; there is no one-size-fits-all approach and no particular one is proposed.
  • It is the interconnected nature of complexity thinking, distributed leadership and team science that truly differentiates The Flow System.
  • Exceeding expectations comes at a cost. Quality needs to be proportionate.
  • Your company culture is a product of your combined behaviors. You cannot create culture; it emerges.

The book The Flow System: The Evolution of Agile and Lean Thinking in an Age of Complexity by John Turner, Nigel Thurlow, and Brian Rivera supports organizations that operate in complex environments to increase agility. Built on a foundation of the Toyota Production System, it elevates Lean Thinking in an age of complexity by combining complexity thinking, distributed leadership, and team science into what the authors call the Triple Helix of Flow, which organizations can use to become more innovative, adaptive, and resilient.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of The Flow System

This book Q&A with John Turner, Nigel Thurlow, and Brian Rivera is published in two parts. Part 1 (this article) explores the importance of quality, getting fast feedback from customers, the concept of flow, and The Flow System. Part 2, to be published in a few weeks, will dive into the three helixes of complexity thinking, distributed leadership, and team science.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

John Turner: This book is a compilation of the research that I’ve conducted over the past 10 or so years. While I have authored many refereed articles during my tenure as a professor, access to these academic publications are limited to those outside of academia. My research is also heavily theoretical and research-based, making it less than pleasant for practitioners, those doing the work, to apply any new knowledge gained from my research. This is often a problem with academia and research; it is disseminated for other researchers. This problem has been coined the theory-to-practice gap, highlighting the gap between what is being researched, and what is needed and easy to apply in the workplace. This gap presents a constraint in that these two bodies of knowledge remain separated from one another.

When I had the opportunity to work with Nigel and Brian on this book, I was excited. This was an opportunity to meld theoretical and research knowledge with those who have expertise in applying the very methods that we study. This was an opportunity to cross the theory-to-practice divide, providing a manuscript that was valuable to all parties interested rather than being valuable to only a small group. The expertise that both Nigel and Brian hold are vastly different from my knowledge base. The combined effort from the three of us, along with our backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge makes this book a perfect pairing of theory and practice.

Nigel Thurlow: I have worked in the Lean and Agile world for most of my career, having started out in plain old project management before my career with Toyota kicked in, where I learned lean as it was designed by its creators. 

After training 1000s of people in many of these techniques I realized there was something missing, and the idea for The Flow System was born. Early sketches I made showed pillars as I tried to reconcile the different disciplines that were being sold and taught to business.

Many iterations later, mostly on my dining room wall with Post It notes, the Flow System as we now know it was completed. The pillars had become helixes (or helices) and the interconnected nature of each of them was clear. We called this the Triple Helix of Flow and it formed The DNA of Organizations.

The book is a culmination of my work so far in organizational design and organizational strategy, and without John’s invaluable work as the academic and theorist in both team science and complexity thinking, The Flow System would not exist today. The work that Ponch has done over the years was pivotal in actualizing the theory in the development of high performance teams and high reliability organizations. 

Brian Rivera: Agile and Lean are 20 years behind elite military teams, healthcare, and many safety professionals when it comes to scalable practices that are underpinned by team science and distributed leadership. 

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Turner: This book is for a broad audience. It can be used as a reference book for many undergraduate and graduate (e.g., MBA) programs. This book will be used as a reference book in the new MBA concentrations that we are developing at UNT. 

This book is also a must-read for any leader or emerging leader looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage in ambiguous and uncertain times, such as in today’s COVID-19 pandemic environment.

Managers, coaches, team leaders, team members, team and leadership trainers, and those involved in managing or developing team-structured work environments, would benefit greatly from the content found in this book. This book is a must-have for anyone involved in transforming their organization in today’s environment, especially if the transformation involves team-based structures.

This book provides a new perspective compared to other books. While we provide a wealth of content and knowledge under the umbrella of The Flow System, the content is still non-prescriptive, requiring the end user to identify what theories, techniques, or practices will work best for their contextual situation, for their organization. The point is that this book is not for anyone looking for a step-by-step formula to help them to transform their organization. Transformation, training, and development are contextual and cannot be achieved through any prescriptive formula. 

Thurlow: My desire when writing the book with John and Ponch was to enable Lean and Agile practitioners to learn the things that I’ve learned over the years and understand how to apply them. It became obvious when we started to refine the design of The Flow System and then write the book that the lessons we had learned applied across a vast array of industries, and perhaps in all facets of business, even life. In fact, if you study Flow, you will find that everything is a flow system, some flowing better than others! 

The book is unique in that it is not pigeonholed into a single category. It is aimed at those providing value to a consumer of some sort, so primarily aimed at businesses and service providers, yet it has great utility in any aspect where leadership and teamwork is required, especially where complex problems exist. 

This book is not a prescription. It is a guide to learning and understanding. It contains extensive references to the peer reviewed work we have reflected on, as well as some of the peer reviewed work we have been part of, especially John. It enables the reader to understand that a siloed approach (a typical pillar of x or y approach) is flawed, and without the interconnected nature of the different aspects we present, organization change will fail, or at best fail to achieve meaningful and lasting change.

The book is designed to educate, guide and act a reference. Read it to learn. Study it to guide, and then use it as a reference to remind, as well as launch you on further explorations to understand topics in greater depth.

It is not a book for those who desire one-size-fits-all frameworks. Plenty exist already and none of them work for systemic lasting organizational change. It is also not a book for easy answers. It will guide your learning and explain the what and the why, but application will be contextual. It explains the tools and the theories and why they might be useful, but it does not prescribe what is suitable in a specific context as that is for the reader to decide.

Rivera: I’m going to be a little more specific here and suggest that military leaders (I’m bucketing first responders and government employees in this group), firms and individuals in the equity options volatility arbitrage business, and the construction industry will benefit from The Flow System. I think InfoQ readers will enjoy reading about these connections in my upcoming Forbes article.

InfoQ: Why should we never skimp on quality?

Thurlow: Coming from a Japanese manufacturing background in Toyota quality was always part of everything I did. Quality is critical in avoiding higher costs, longer lead times, and in many cases safety. We discuss several catastrophic events in the book and how the lack of quality led to disasters, and how leadership behaviors of focusing on anything other than quality were significant contributing factors.

Edwards Deming in 1952 stated that “‘GOOD QUALITY’ and ‘UNIFORM QUALITY’ have no meaning except with reference to the customer’s need”. My focus when creating The Flow System was to improve the focus on the customer and the flow of value to the customer. Without a customer, most organizations have little need to exist, something lost to most leaders today despite public statements to the contrary. 

My view is simple. Always put the customer first, and the customer will ensure you have a sustainable and successful organization. This applies to non-profits just as much as for profit organizations. Once the perception of value wanes, as viewed by the recipient of that value, so does your reason to exist. Quality is how you are judged, whether that is a physical product like a phone, or a service you receive, say, in a restaurant, or the services provided to you by a charity.

Focus on quality and costs will come down as defects and rework are eliminated, time to deliver will reduce as the need to stop and fix goes away, and profits will increase as customers give you their loyalty for a product that meets their expectations. Toyota is living proof of this doctrine. 

But be careful: exceeding expectations comes at a cost. Quality needs to be proportionate. There’s no point making a phone that will last 50 years as the technology will be obsolete before the hardware fails.

A rare exception currently is Tesla. They seem to have been able to make products that exhibited many quality issues, and yet customers are fanatically loyal. Time will tell if they can sustain that loyalty once the traditional manufacturers catch up to their innovative use of technologies.

InfoQ: Why should we aim for getting fast feedback from customers?

Turner: Feedback is just one component of the learning process; it is also built into the PDCA cycle, the OODA loop, and design thinking processes, to name a few. Without feedback, we are looking at delivering a product using processes more similar to “waterfall”, correcting problems and mis-specifications after delivery. It is not just fast feedback from the customer that is necessary; it is having the customer fully-involved and engaged in the entire process. It is essential to include the customer as a team member from the design stages through the final delivery of the product or service. Follow-up in a post-delivery market continues this engagement with the customer. This is especially critical in today’s circle-economy where the customer is connected to the products they sell, from design throughout the life-cycle of the product to its end-of-life cycle (recycling process).

Thurlow: Feedback is learning. Fast feedback is fast learning. Innovation and creativity require rapid learning. The adage is “fail fast” which is sometimes appended “and learn early”. If it took you two years to learn from the market what a customer wanted from a phone, you’d no longer be in the phone making business. If you want to succeed in today’s hyper competitive and ever-changing market, you better learn how to adapt rapidly and that requires active listening to your customers’ feedback.

Feedback is built into most interactive approaches as John mentions, but the challenge I had in Toyota was PDCA was not very disciplined. PDCA is not defined other than the idea. There are no constraints applied to the time spent in each phase; it is just an idea, a concept or construct. It is of course eminently powerful, but without guidance and enabling constraints, it just remains a concept.

This is one of the reasons Scrum The Toyota Way was developed while I was in the role of chief of Agile at Toyota, to shorten the PDCA cycle. Planning would often go on for months, sometimes years, and then doing for an equally long time. When we got to reflection or checking and acting, we’d sort of forgotten everything we’d done. 

PDCA and its later variant from Deming PDSA are meant to be a rapid cycle of learning. Indeed, Deming describes it thus as “the PDSA cycle is a flow diagram for learning”. Quite prophetic, perhaps? Toyota expects PDCA to be used as a check on your thinking, a behavioral characteristic. The problem is people are not very disciplined, so it becomes interpretive and not explicit. Scrum extended that by adding discipline to the PDCA cycle, which is effectively what it is. PDCA with discipline became a Sprint with timeboxes to add enabling constraints to the cycle, plus some defined artifacts to make the input and output explicit. Without the discipline and the enabling constraints, it becomes wooly and vague and boundless with people stuck in one step or another.

Rivera: I’m a student of the OODA loop and I grew up in a culture where effective debriefing (feedback) was life. I know from experience that sometimes we can make the best decisions and have horrible outcomes. As a result, I’m extremely passionate about feedback loops and I teach teamwork using the OODA loop as it has three distinct feedback pathways; two of which are based on double loop learning where feedback from the external environment, our customer, controls our future activities. 

To be clear, real feedback is outside-in-bottom-up. This is also known as control and why Customer 1st Value Delivery is so important. 

Some Ponchisms on feedback: 

  1. You cannot grade your own homework 
  2. You must view the customer as an extension of your team    

InfoQ: What's your definition of flow? What makes flow so important?

Turner: Our description of flow in TFS can best be summarized as value creation from conception to delivery through the interconnectivity of the three helixes of complexity thinking, distributed leadership, and team science. While Agile and Lean practices will work for many situations, TFS is conceptualized for complex, ambiguous, and rapidly disrupted environments. 

Flow is critical for organizations and institutions in delivering value to a multitude of customers on a global stage. Recognizing that the life expectancy of Fortune 1000 firms have decreased over the years, and that consumers of goods and services are more engaged and knowledgeable of the products they pay for, delivering value becomes extremely important for any leader looking to remain in business 5 or 10 years into the future. Achieving a state of flow also provides the benefit of reducing inhibiting constraints while, at the same time, introducing enabling constraints. Flow reduces disruptions in delivering value while creating additional means of improving upon the value delivered. Flow is holistic and occurs at all levels within an organization, including the customer and community.  

Thurlow: Achieving a state of flow occurs when organizations/institutions produce outcomes in which their constraints (e.g., structure, processes, environmental effects) are shaped in a way that enables employees to concentrate on their own interactions among one another and the customer. Flow ultimately results in employees concentrating on the act of doing rather than combatting or succumbing to organizational friction.

You can imagine the removal of constrictions or constraints in an organization as optimizing flow by focusing on the lean definitions of people, materials or information, but simply identifying a constraint is insufficient. Seeing constraints is easy in a manufacturing process where you see the impact of the constraint to flow. 

In many organizations constraints are invisible, and have nothing to do with process and have more to do with human behaviors that create the aforementioned organizational friction. Enabling flow is more than simply implementing one piece flow in a manufacturing process, although that is also needed; it has more to do with enabling the flow of value throughout an organization. 

Your company culture is a product of your combined behaviors. You cannot create culture; it emerges.

Rivera: Outside of the definitions John and Nigel provided above, I’m partial to professor Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law which states that “for a finite flow system to persist in time, it evolves with freedom such that it provides greater access to what flows.” In essence, professor Bejan’s Constructal Law suggests that all moving or living systems are flow systems and can be broken down into two components: (1) the design (noun) through which a currency (water, blood, money, information, value, etc.) flows and (2) the currency itself. 

With this first principle in mind, I see the OODA loop as a flow system--remember that the OODA loop borrows from another flow principle and that is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics but applied to open systems. With professor Bejan’s definition, I think more people will see the similarities between the Theory of Constraints (ToC) and design thinking, and between the OODA loop and Cynefin framework, and between Agile and safety.

I’ve seen too many flow practitioners focus on workflow. This is okay but is a bit limiting to mechanical systems, not organic ones. Of note, the “flow of work” moving seamlessly from one team member to another member is the #1 characteristics that distinguishes a high-performing team from a team. 

So why is flow so important? Without flow, without evolution and the freedom to change, a system will die. 

InfoQ: What does The Flow System look like?

Turner: Earlier we talked about complexity and how to work on complex problems. One essential technique in working in complex environments is to utilize small diverse teams. The requisite variety in small diverse teams, teams that are truly cross-functional and multidisciplinary, working asynchronously (virtually) is necessary to better identify patterns in complexity. To identify patterns in complexity it is necessary to have different perspectives, different knowledge sets and experiences, involving a variety of disciplines found in properly composed diverse teams. In the real world, these complex problems require multiple teams, rather than one team. 

When teams are scaled, we are looking at what some call “teams-of-teams,” or what we call multiteam systems (from the team science literature). Teams operate autonomously using a shared leadership model and multiteam systems are facilitated by functional leadership (we call this role the boundary spanner). The boundary spanner manages the spaces between teams and between teams and the multiteam system. The boundary spanner manages the goals of the organization (distal goals) and aligns each individual teams’ goals (proximal goals) with that of the multiteam system’s goals. 

Executive leaders provide the strategic vision and resources necessary for the multiteam systems to be successful. The customer is involved at each level: the individual team level, the multiteam system level, and the executive level. They are fully engaged in the entire process. 

This example highlights how complexity requires teams while being embedded within an organization’s leadership structure. 

The Triple Helix of Flow requires the integration of the three helixes (complexity thinking, distributed leadership, team science) to achieve seamless flow from design to delivery. This example, one that plays over and over in today’s organizations, identifies how flow is achieved using the concept of the Triple Helix of Flow and integrating each of the three helixes holistically (for more information see The Evolution of Lean Thinking). Flow cannot be achieved without this integration.

Thurlow: The Flow System builds on a foundation of Lean Thinking from my background in Toyota, and while some lean practitioners have evolved their interpretation of the approaches created by Toyota, I have chosen to simply add to them where I felt there was a need to do so. All lean approaches rely on reductionist techniques to solve problems. The Flow System does not, and instead elucidates the tools and approaches necessary to manage problems that are irreducible. An irreducible problem is one where there is no root cause.

Lean thinking is as critical now as it has ever been, but we need new tools to solve the challenges we face and will continue to face as our world faces ever more complex challenges. Organizations cannot continue to simply recycle the previous tools and thinking with new branding; they need to learn new tools and understand problems that do not have linear causality, or simple causation. 

Leadership has evolved much over the last few years, but many leaders are simply executive managers and the whole concept of leadership has been corrupted. Distributed leadership enables leadership as a characteristic and not a job title, and continues to support the definitions and concepts used by the agile world.

Team science focuses on the importance of teamwork vs taskwork and clearly defines the differences. Teamwork is also different to team performance. Teamwork is the secret sauce to team effectiveness and we explain how to develop effective teams which are different to teams that simply perform within predefined KPIs. 

The key to organizational performance is team effectiveness, but that can only be achieved with new approaches to leadership and an understanding of complexity. This highlights the importance of the concept provided in The Triple Helix of Flow.

InfoQ: What's your advice to organizations that want to work with The Flow System?

Turner: First, it’s contextual. What works for your organization will be different compared to other organizations. Each organization needs to identify what works for them given their environment, product or service, and customer. 

Second, it is essential for each of the three helixes to be integrated. Development from the bottom-up is necessary (individual, team, MTS, executive). Having a workforce trained in the helixes of complexity thinking, distributed leadership, and team science will result in a holistic effort in delivering value to the customer and results to the organization.

Thurlow: Stop using case based approaches to define how you “transform”. As John says, context is key. Recognizing organizational change means “changing the organization,” and not just IT or a few software teams. Realize there are things you do not know or fully understand and invest the time into learning and understanding them. The book is a start on that journey. Our world has changed, and will continue to change, and so will the tools and methods we need to adapt to those changes, and change is happening ever faster now.

Part 2 of this book Q&A will dive into how the flow system addresses complexity and leadership.

About the Book Authors 

John R. Turner, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of North Texas, USA. He is the co-author of The Flow System: The Evolution of Agile and Lean Thinking in an Age of Complexity, The Flow System Guide, and The Flow System: Key Principles and Attributes. His research interests are in the interconnectivity between leadership, teams, and complexity. He can be reached at

Nigel Thurlow is the creator of the award-winning Scrum the Toyota Way training course, and the co-creator of The Flow System. He previously served as the first ever chief of Agile at a global Toyota company leading Lean and Agile practices at Toyota Connected, and is a recognized expert in the Toyota Production System, the Toyota Way, and various Agile approaches. He is a well-known keynote speaker and as a professional Scrum trainer, and has trained over 7,500 people worldwide as of 2020. His YouTube channel can be found at

Brian Rivera, callsign “Ponch,” is a recovering Navy TOPGUN and F-14 Demonstration  Team Member with extensive experience at the operational and strategic level of warfare.  He is the co-author of The Flow System: The Evolution of Agile and Lean Thinking in an Age of Complexity and The Flow System Guide. Ponch is a keynote speaker, and CEO and founder of AGLX Consulting.


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