Flow Engineering – Learning to Lead from the Inside Out

The most important information system you'll ever manage is your own mind. The next most important is your team. If you can tackle these challenges, the computers will fall into line.

A world of accelerating change demands a new generation of management with the skills to drive decisive action and elevate performance. Managers tasked with delivering results collide with peers whose conflicting goals, perspectives, and incentives freeze progress and create a glacial pace of change. New thinking and practices are needed to act in alignment. You can't copy-and-paste a solution, and you can't do it alone. To collaborate effectively you need to create a shared map of the territory, and you need to pick your battles.

This talk presents profound yet practical applications of systems thinking, psychology, and organizational design. On that foundation we share a step-by-step guide to visualizing the outcomes, processes, and dependencies that can tie you down or help you succeed. Co-create maps of the hidden relations and interactions that constrain your teams - maps that everyone can align with and act on. Replace deadlocks with shared insights. Reveal exactly what to do next. Learn how to reach across the whitespace in your org chart to replace friction with flow.


Andrew Davis

Sr. Director of Research and Innovation, Copado


Steve Pereira

Founder, Visible





Welcome to our session on Flow Engineering. We're going to be sharing a strategy for leading across the organization from the inside out. I'm Steve Pereira, I am the founder and CEO of Visible Value Stream Consulting.


And I'm Andrew Davis. I'm the Senior Director of Research and Innovation at coppa. And we'd like to introduce you also to Sharon. Sharon is our fictional director of software engineering at Bolt Global. So we wanna tell you a story. We wanna tell you Sharon's story and story about working with Sharon to help her out. But so this story has touched on three things. Um, optimizing for clarity, value, and flow across an organization about how to use the technique of collaborative mapping to take what's inside our minds and put it out in a form that everybody can align around. And then through that, how to create win, win-win situations for customers, for the business, and for the individual contributors. So, Sharon's challenge, here's the scenario. Her company, both global, is facing a lot of market pressure, competitive pressures, pushing them to make operational efficiency improvements, also opening up new lines of business.


They've launched a bunch of improvement initiatives, and that has, in turn, created a lot of work for Sharon's team that a massive backlog of changes that her team is tasked with delivering. So she's under pressure to figure out how to deliver twice as fast as she's able to do today. Um, the only question then is how, so this, although it's a fictional scenario, Sharon is facing situations similar to lots of organizations around the world. Uh, and we know a lot of these massive IT initiatives, digital transformation projects and so forth, end in failure. We look at the literature about why many of these initiatives struggle to get off the ground or struggle to succeed. A lot of sources point to an underlying lack of clarity. Either the leading founding teams fail to gain the clarity that they need, or they fail to share that clarity across the organization, or they fail to sustain clarity as the competitive landscape is changing and technology's evolving and so forth.


So we're gonna tell you about how to build clarity, but first, focusing on why we struggle to find clarity. So think about Sharon's situation. She's operating within the limits of her individual perceptual capacity, so she can pay attention to company strategic initiatives, her own initiatives that she's trying to roll out, the work items that her team is working on, the interpersonal dynamics and personal situations of people in her team. It's a lot to balance right, and she finds herself doing a lot of context switching through the day and struggling to keep everything straight in her own mind, just due the, due to the limits of our human mental capacity. As a species, we have learned how to create and enhance our clarity through culture, through interacting with other members of our, uh, community of our group, so that we don't necessarily have to know everything, but we can lean on the people around us.


But cultural issues can also, uh, interfere with clarity, uh, power dynamics, presence, fear, inner organization so forth, can impede people's ability to speak up and say what they actually, honestly think about a situation. And the organizations can end up being blindsided in dramatic ways when culture is not conducive to clarity. And that's particularly problematic today because the systems that we're working on, for example, Sharon's team is building something like 15 or 20 different applications. They all interact with each other in different ways. They're built on different technology stacks. The market landscape is changing. So there's a phenomenal amount of complexity that her team is trying to manage and she's trying to manage. And these three things together mean that it's legitimately hard to find clarity.


So what we wanna share with you today is something of an underrated capability in organizations, uh, these days. And it is collaborative mapping. It's bringing separate perspectives and individuals together to create a common understanding through mapping together. So by co-creating maps, by creating this canvas of separate perspectives, separate, uh, ideas and challenges, we're able to and aid the improved performance of Sharon's team by getting all of the contributors to bring their best, uh, ideas and their own perceptions to this common canvas that, uh, that creates this common understanding. So the practice here is highly engaging, right? We're bringing everybody and allowing them to speak up to bring their strengths and capabilities to the team in a novel and, and fun, uh, way of collaborating. And the effect of this is that we create a shared context and a shared understanding, um, but also allowing people to bring their perspectives means that they, they have a sense of ownership over the outcome.


You might recognize this as the Ikea effect. When you build something, you feel better about the end product. And by bringing everyone together, we're able to create a sense of alignment, almost convergence of these separate perspectives to a unified view of what's happening and what we can do with our capabilities and our situation. This is not a one size fits all approach. It's not a copy and paste that we know doesn't work. It's not a heavy framework or, you know, trying to adopt the practices of another company. We're creating something with Sharon's team, for Sharon's team in Sharon's situation. And while we're doing this, everyone is learning about flow. They're learning about how to improve performance by doing the mapping and revealing these opportunities, bottlenecks, challenges, surfacing all of these things that often stay hidden behind the scenes. And one of the best aspects of this under the current circumstances is that it's very remote friendly.


We're able to include participants across Sharon's team who might reside in different locations, or, you know, they're only in the office a couple days a week. So scheduling might be a nightmare if we didn't have something that was very remote friendly. So we're going to be guiding Sharon's team through a process that we call flow engineering, trying to optimize and improve flow. And we're going to be using three specific maps to do this. We're going to start by aligning every participant on Sharon's team under a common understanding of what our target outcome is. What are we trying to achieve? So we know two times faster, but what does that really mean? And what is it going to take to get there? And secondly, what we're going to explore is what are the current constraints on what we're doing right now? Where are things challenging? Where do things slow down?


What is not working out about the work that we're doing right now? And we explore that a little bit in further detail by examining dependencies. What are the things that are, uh, slowing us down, perhaps inside the team or outside the team that we might be able to influence or mitigate? So starting off this process, we begin with the end in mind by breaking down that outcome of going twice as fast. So what does that mean? What are we going to have to do to get there? Starting from that point, we guide Sharon's team as facilitators through breaking down what is twice as fast actually look like. We wanna make sure that, uh, we don't lose track of other important initiatives like keeping the lights on. We don't, we don't want to pull too far in terms of, of velocity, so that quality suffers. So it's important to the team to highlight.


We wanna make sure that we don't sacrifice quality as we go. The second piece about exploring this outcome is really forming a deep common understanding about why this is valuable. Why should we ignore everything else that we could be doing in service of this, this one focused outcome. And that kind of anchors the outcome in the team and makes it very real and tangible and powerful as a motivation for moving forward. The next thing that we want to explore as a contribution to the outcome is what are the things that are going to get in our way? What are those hidden Lego pieces that we're going to stumble upon in the middle of the night as we're heading towards the fridge for our midnight snack? So looking at obstacles, the things that could hinder our progress, gets all of our fears and challenges and things that we think are going to be troublesome out into the open so that we can form a strategy to avoid them.


And then we'll look at investigations. How can we learn more about the, the outcome that we're, we're heading towards? How can we learn more about what's going to help us avoid obstacles or get us to where we're going as quickly as possible? And finally, what we want to highlight are what are the measurements that are going to reveal a sense of progress that is going to show us that we're headed in the right direction? And so by building this map with Sharon's team, everybody's on the same page. There's this very strong and clear understanding of what it's gonna take for us to get to our target outcome.


So this exercise opens up, uh, clarity by bringing together points of view from within different members of the team and different concerns. One of the first things that this often exposes is that there's a lot of different goals and different values. Customers have, you know, varying sets of things they want. Business has varying sets of things they want. Employees have varying sets of things that they want. And so this is something that's always happening, but it's not always made explicit. So then once you've surfaced these various, uh, potentially competing goals, you need to figure out which of these, if any, can you sacrifice and from one, from among the goals and priorities that remain how best to balance these. So this speaks to there being three elements to any action. We'd like this framework. It's just a very simple way to think about things. Um, first of all, there's taking in information and beginning to make sense of it, perceiving and understanding.


So first thing that Sharon and her team does, they lay down the bits of information that they have. Um, but then second, there's a decision making process always prior to an action. That decision making process is really a process of balancing various possible outcomes to determine what course to chart based on these competing goals. Only once you've made a decision, and again, a decision is a fundamentally emotional decision, you take raw information and make an emotional call on what's most valuable, what's the best outcome, then you can take action. Of course, the loop always continues once you've taken an action, you're getting feedback from the world thing, things have changed. You're trying to reorient yourself to the next new reality. But these three always are in operation. But if you look at all three of them, they're on a, on a spectrum, really from perceiving and understanding.


There's a spectrum from just raw confusion, which is where Sharon was originally starting out, um, when she was first tasked to make these improvements. But she wants to move to a state of clarity, right? So this is maximizing her ability to take in information and make sense of it in terms of decision making. The real risk is making the wrong decision, right? Uh, like the old adage that, uh, management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. So decision making is a leadership choice about are you making the right decision? Are you making a decision that's gonna take you in an effective direction? Are you actually going to be able to realize value from the activities you take on? Now, action. When it comes to action, there's again, a spectrum here ranging from pure, uh, inefficiency, clumsiness, a lot of waste and friction to a state of flow. So these are the three, uh, three, these three aspects. They all have this continuum. We really wanna optimize clarity, value, and flow throughout the entire organization.


So understanding a lot more about our outcome, creating a sense of clarity and shared ownership over that outcome has driven us to look at what are we doing right now that we can improve in order to get to that twice as fast. So we want to use value stream mapping in this case to discover a common bottleneck that we could focus on in order to improve the performance of the entire stream. So when we're mapping a value stream, where we start is by laying out all the activities involved that our contributing to our delivery of value, but we wanna make this actionable. And so it takes measurement, right? We want to understand what is the difference between all these actions? Which one should we focus on? Where is the real constraint that should drive our decision making? And so we, we establish how long all of these activities take.


We also highlight what are the delays between each activity, whether it's a handoff to a different department or even from context switching through individuals. And what this brings us to is by our ability to measure very simply, we can identify a hotspot that is extremely valuable if we were to address it. So we have environments set up here, taking up 45% of the total time in the value stream, which means that if we tackle that, um, we're a good, uh, we're a good ways towards our, our twice as fast metric, and we can tackle that and then look elsewhere for other bottlenecks and constraints. So starting at environment setup puts us into a good state for moving forward.


So what we're doing when we're looking at value stream mapping is we're focusing on the collective flow, collective workflow. Taking, for example, a sequence of tasks and seeing how can we minimize delays and minimize friction in terms of enabling the team to get work done and handle the handoffs collective flow opens the door to personal workflow or personal experience of flow. And this speaks to the psychological state of flow, which has been widely discussed since the eighties, um, which is a state in which the challenge that you're working on is a reasonable match for your skill level. So there's a, what's called a flow channel, where the challenge and is a reasonable match for your skill. And your skills naturally increase and the challenges rise with them. And when you're in the flow channel, it naturally is conducive to an experience of joy. So this experience of joy is not just a luxury add-on to the process of knowledge work. It's really critical to maximize engagement so that you're not facing a situation, uh, like, um, Gallup says, where only 35% of workers are really engaged in their jobs, you're reclaiming all of that surplus mental energy and creativity from your team. And through that, you're naturally maximizing performance because you've created a situation that's conducive to your team, increasing their skills systematically, uh, urged onwards by this experience of joy.


So now that we have clarified our outcome and revealed this very powerful and valuable constraint in the flow, we can dig a little bit deeper and we have to, because it turns out that environment setup is actually not entirely handled by Sharon's team. In fact, it's handled externally. And Sharon's team doesn't actually have any control over that. They have to go elsewhere. And where they go to get environment changes is the infrastructure team. And this is one piece of the puzzle. Uh, but among all of the dependencies that are affecting the flow, focusing here is really going to allow us to channel all the energy on the team towards this common goal. And once we get that out of the way, we can look elsewhere. But as a simplified starting point to clarify and, and focus our efforts, we are brought to the infrastructure team to try to alleviate the bottleneck.


So the infrastructure team is run by Kim as the director, and now the infrastructure team looks after all of the environments, both the development testing and the production environments. One of their characteristics is that they're always swamped. They've got tons of interruptions from production issues and notifications. You've got a lot of long running projects that they've been working on in some cases for years. And it's put Kim in a position of basically having to ignore any external requests she's at or above capacity. And so she's not really got any excess capacity mentally or time-wise to begin to think about Sharon and Sharon's concerns. So what we do is return to mapping to create a shared perspective.


So what we're aiming to do here is a second pass by including Kim as a first class participant in the process. We don't want to create a bunch of maps and dump them on Kim and say, Hey, turns out you are the problem and we need you to, uh, to help us out, right? We're looking to include Kim in this process and make sure that she benefits just as much as Sharon's team. And the way that we do this is by recreating an outcome map between the two groups to find a common win-win scenario. And that brings us to a common value stream map. So what is the, the flow, uh, inside of environment setup? So we're digging deeper to find out where's the bottleneck and environment set up now? Uh, where can we influence the flow inside of Kim's team in order to increase her capacity and, uh, likewise increase the capacity of Sharon's team to deliver value.


These issues of clarity, value, and flow, they become harder as you scale up. Uh, for example, introducing Kim. And, uh, Sharon, uh, is introducing two very different perspectives. They ba basically deal with totally different systems, totally different people, totally different concerns on a day-to-day basis. And as a result, they've also got different goals. So their values are not naturally aligned. Um, and just as you move through an organization through different zoom levels, uh, it's very hard for any individual to keep the whole picture in their mind. So, for example, Sharon has a broad picture of what's going on in her team, but she may not know the details of particular projects that her developers are working on. And similarly with Kim, uh, not being able to understand the details of particular servers, and as you move up through executive levels of management, they may have a high level picture of what's going on in the organization, but lacking all the adequate detail on, uh, what's happening at a detailed level.


When we bring Sharon and Kim together, uh, often we encounter this issue of personality clash and, uh, two people who may be, uh, hesitant or reluctant to get, uh, get along with one another. This is exacerbated by seeing these two people as kind of a, uh, opaque entity where you just see it as a person, but not realizing the psychology going on inside their minds. In Sharon's mind, of course, she's got a collection of perceptions and understandings, and they're built up over time, um, based on the, you know, her training and experiences and culture and so forth. And that guides her decision making based on what she values and guides her actions based on what seems to be the most effective way to accomplish this. And so she builds up a sense of self, you know, she has some sense that I, Sharon, this is how I see things.


This is what I want, this is what I do. She's built up this sense of self really around these perceptions, values, and, uh, and activities. Kim is the same. She's got her own set of information and, uh, framework structure that she uses to understand the world, her own goals and her own behaviors, and she's built her sense of self around those mental capabilities to a great degree. So what we're doing and focusing on through collaborative mapping is beginning to establish a shared view between these two, these two people. Um, by establishing a shared view, you open the door to establishing shared goals, you can begin to balance and prioritize competing values, and you open the door to shared activity, the ability to actually act together and work together further. You also open up the possibility of shared identity. So for example, on Kim's team, because they're dealing with very similar situations every day, they've got a very similar perception, they've got similar goals, they've got similar activities.


And so Kim's team is very, very cohesive inside the team, but they regard other teams outside of them as other, right, not not their team. And so the self other dichotomy is, uh, exacerbated when, um, well the self other dichotomy comes from who you see to be similar to you in terms of their views, their intentions, and their activities. So it's aligning those views, intentions and activities creates a cohesion and a unification. So shared activity in particular creates shared identity from among various, uh, things that help to build a shared identity. And if you want to unify action, you need to unify people's minds, especially starting with a shared view.


So in the case of the broader organization, we're gonna zoom out a little bit and sort of provide an overview of where we are so far. So we're in a situation where the organization needs to improve its capacity to deliver value, right? It wants to go faster, which means that Sharon's team needs to go faster, needs a capacity to improve performance. We also have then the need by identifying that bottleneck and Sharon's team as Kim's, uh, environment set up. We need Sharon's team to, we need Kim's team rather to improve its capacity to deliver value. But of course, you know, we immediately encounter this situation where Kim's team is overworked, um, where are they going to get this improved capacity from? And that's going to bring us to, uh, what we are aiming for with this, this collaborative mapping, uh, between the two, uh, groups of people.


So we're targeting environment set up and looking at how we can bring Kim and Sharon together towards common, uh, improvement of performance by digging deeper into that. So what we do in that common value stream mapping exercise is dig a little bit deeper and find out, you know, we have several activities that are happening inside of environment setup, and we wanna identify there the bottleneck. We're digging deeper to find out what is the constraint that's going to move the needle the most, which brings us to a few separate areas. First of all, we discover that provisioning data, tearing it down, refreshing, it takes up a massive amount of environment set up. So by refreshing the data only when it's needed, we're able to reduce the setup time by a significant percentage, brings us to the next bottleneck, and we can knock these off one at a time.


By minimizing manual testing, we're able to drop set up time by a higher percentage. But the reason we did it second, because it takes a little bit more work than just that data check. Finally, as we're getting into, you know, diminishing returns, we discovered that updating the environment itself, re-visioning containers, um, also dropped the setup time by a significant percentage. But, you know, we sort of stopped there because we've hit, you know, a, a great, uh, return on investment for this exercise by digging deeper into these constraints. So as a result, um, what we discover is that we're able to reduce the total time, the lead time of, uh, Sharon's team's value stream by 35%. By tackling that environment set up and reducing the total time it takes to do environment setup, we've reduced the total time it takes to do the entire value delivery process and increase that capacity for delivering faster. As a result, Kim's team is going faster. Uh, by improving its capacity, Sharon's team is able to improve its capacity and go faster, and the organization is benefiting by improving its ability to deliver value at a higher level of performance.


So these elements of action, they're similar at every scale, which is one reason why we like this. Um, as an individual, Sharon has to go through this loop on an ongoing basis of perceiving, deciding and acting. The teams have to operate in a similar fashion, and even at an organizational level, they're taking in a massive amount of information, trying to make sense of it, making decisions and taking actions collectively. So when we look at the fastest way to build flow, you need to look at psychological alignment as your first step. Helping disparate parties to build a shared view and doing it together, building it together is the most powerful way to get that joint ownership on the basis of shared view, you can begin to get shared goals and from that shared activity, this kind of unification is created by building these maps together, especially.


So if you look just in summary flow engineering, mapping your path to success, um, we've looked at outcome maps and how Sharon used these to clarify the goals that her team was trying to accomplish. Value stream maps that she used to identify the exact challenge and limitation that her team was facing. And then dependency maps, uh, that Sharon used to identify and isolate the exact thing that was holding her team up, which ended up being outside of her team entirely, which is why we come back to bringing Kim in to take a look at what are the shared outcomes that both Kim and Sharon can align to? What are they both trying to accomplish? How can we best mesh their individual perspectives beginning then to look at the aspects of the value stream that are shared by both Kim and Sharon, looking at improvement opportunities that would also benefit Kim and her team, uh, enormously as well as Sharon.


And so in summary, without outcome mapping, what we're doing is, especially we're clarifying goals, there's a lot of different techniques that can be used, frameworks and so forth for doing this. The real purpose is just getting that clarity and shared understanding. Um, on the value stream mapping, again, there's many different approaches you can take, but your real goal is to identify the constraints in your process. And then dependency mapping your focus is how to address those constraints, understanding inside the value stream what's, uh, what's actually driving efficiency or impediments. So one thing we'd like to leave you with is emphasizing the power of building shared clarity as a foundation for collaboration. So Steve and I are working on a book with IT Revolution that's due out next fall. So the book's on succeeding with Value Stream Management by building clarity, value and flow. We're delighted to have a chance to be sharing this as a summary of that material in advance, but we can really use your help as well. We're looking for stories from your experience of where you've seen cross team dependencies work or lead to failures and difficulties. Um, we'd love to include any of that in the book or just use that to inform our understanding. We're available at Inside Out work. Uh, we have a newsletter, um, biweekly newsletter as well as weekly office hours. We'd love to connect with you more and discuss, uh, what you're seeing in the world of, uh, work. Thank you so much.