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Improving Product Development with Flow Thinking

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In the presentation flow thinking - the mental leap Håkan Forss and Erik Schön explained how they created buy-in and commitment for flow thinking using a mental model and metaphor, and showed practical examples of improving the product development flow at Ericsson.

InfoQ interviewed Håkan & Erik about their journey from methods & tools to principles & mindset and how they use visual management to implement flow thinking.

InfoQ: Thank you for doing this interview with InfoQ. Can you explain what flow thinking is in a few sentences?

Håkan & Erik: Thank you for the opportunity to share.

In flow thinking, flow of customer value comes first. Finding and removing blockers in the product development flow is more important than keeping people and equipment 100% utilized. With flow thinking, we want to reduce the end-to-end lead-time to become more responsive to the customers' needs.

What we call flow thinking is based on Lean and Agile. We have been heavily inspired and influenced by Niklas Modig and Par Ahlstrom's ideas of flow efficiency vs resource efficiency and Don Reinertsen's thoughts on flow as being the essence of 2nd generation lean product development.

InfoQ: Your talked about going "from methods & tools to principles & mindset". Sounds to me as a challenging journey?

Håkan & Erik: Yes, it has been, and still is a challenging journey. It is relatively easy to start using new methods and tools as long as you are operating in a similar context as where they were developed. However, in most cases the context is quite different. Then you need to adapt the methods and tools to your own context. This is often very hard if you do not understand the principles and mindset used to develop the methods and tools in the first place.

When companies like Toyota open their doors to competitors, they are not afraid they will lose their competitive advantage. They even allow their competitors to take photos and ask detailed questions about their methods and tools. The reason is that what the competitors see is only a snapshot in time and not the journey how they were developed. If you can shift from a methods & tools approach to a principles & mindset approach, you create the capability to develop new methods and tools that fits your current context and needs. Making this shift is not easy - it takes time and lots of patience. Some people in the organization have immersed themselves in the new principles and mindset. Others are not so interested and only want to get the work done. Taking the time and getting everyone on board with the new principles and mindset is very important if you want the change to stick over time.

InfoQ: How did you deploy the process changes that were needed for Ericsson? What did you do to keep focus on the principles and mindset during the change?

Håkan & Erik: After some initial pilots that validated our initial hypothesis, we gradually deployed the changes in the product development unit. Quite a bit of time has been spent discussing principles and mindset on all levels. There has been a large amount of time and money invested in training, coaching and knowledge sharing. There has been quite a bit of experimentation on different ways of working. And during this time, the responsibility of the leaders has been to act as teachers of the principles and mindset.

The most important part, the effort of focusing on principles and mindset has never stopped. This effort will continue into the future as we continue to evolve and learn more.

InfoQ: How important is visual management in implementing flow thinking? Can you give examples how you do it?

Håkan & Erik: Visual management is often a very important catalyst to get people in the organization to see the whole system. Visual management can help the organization to get a shared understanding of what is blocking flow of work. When there is a shared understanding of the current condition, it is much easier to agree on what is needed, to improve flow.

We have experimented with different types of visual management techniques. One experiment we are running is what we call the end-to-end visualization board. On this board we show all active features and where they are in the product development process. The current feature owner updates the board as needed, but at least once a week. This is a physical board located in what we call the visualization room. This room is dedicated to visual management. Many meetings related to the product development flow are now held in this room.

Another simple and effective change in visual management was changing from showing open issues as bar charts to showing in-flow and out-flow as cumulative line charts. With this change, it is much easier to see changes in the in-flow and out-flow in the system over time. It is easier to see if we are improving the system or not.

Another effective visualization is the use of Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFDs) of the complete product development process. Tracking the amount of work in the different stages of the process over time helped us see how changes in our way of working is changing the performance of the product development system. We can see how work is building up or is drying up in the different parts of the system.

InfoQ: Can flow thinking also help to innovate products and services?

Håkan & Erik: Yes, we think so. By focusing on flow and driving down end-to-end lead-times, you can become more responsive to the changing customer needs. With shorter lead-times, you can try out new and innovative ideas much faster as hypothesis-to-validation time goes down. We also believe that people get more motivated to try out new ideas when they get the feedback faster from the customers.

InfoQ: If the InfoQ readers would like to know more about flow thinking, where can they find information about it?

Håkan & Erik: The main sources for learning more about what we call flow thinking are the following books:

  • This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox, by Niklas Modig and Par Ahlstrom.
  • The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development, by Donald G. Reinertsen.

The slides from our presentation can be found at flow thinking – the mental leaps.

Earlier this year InfoQ wrote about case studies on lean and kanban from Central Europe, this is one of the cases mentioned in this interview. Another case study can be found in experiences from Applying Kanban at SAP.

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