Flow — An Under-appreciated Word that might unlock your Business's Potential.

I had never given this word much thought until I took over the role of a Continuous Improvement Specialist in my organisation. While this role is new to me, the concept of flow is nothing new when I start to dwell further on it. Flow is around us, and the ability to reduce the friction, hurdle or barrier that allows it to move freely enhances one's experience and business. This article aims to highlight to you some of the hurdles of flow that I see daily and how we might remove them to ease the flow of People, Processes, and Products so that it unlocks the business's potential.

People Flow

In Singapore, we keep to the left as we walk, especially along the streets during peak hours. Imagine when everyone is keeping to the left, and you are trying to walk on the right side; what would happen?

If you are travelling at a slower speed, keep to the left so that one doesn't; become an obstruction. The design of the place needs to cater to such natural human flow and not create unnecessary obstacles to limit the flow. All these help people get from one place to another in a more optimised time and probably feel calmer, especially for those who walk faster.

Have you ever encountered a place that's not supporting such flow? At least two physical locations, an MRT Station and a Shopping Mall underpass that I discovered recently don't aid such flow. People are walking on the left need to criss-cross each other's path to get to the escalator or align from the escalator and continue walking. This creates unnecessary friction points and reduces the natural flow that people are used to. This increases the friction among people, especially recently when we might be observing that people are getting more short-tempered.

Some shopping malls intentionally design such obstructions to reduce walking speed and divert people to walk passed as many retail shops as possible. Using this as one of the negotiating factors on the rent that they are collecting, footfall traffic. Thus, such unnecessary tension is intentionally to aid commercial exposure and increase potential or impulse purchases.

Those who visited the Roman Colosseum might know that because of vomitoria built along the entire building to help with the flow of people, the entire 50,000~80,000 spectators could be vacant in 15 minutes.

In a Marathon, if people are not keeping to their speed, we will end up in a chaotic situation where the slower runners block those running faster.

Processes Flow

You entered a Cafe and ordered a takeaway cup of Hot Chocolate. The barrister went three steps to his left to get a takeaway cup and returned to prepare the drink. Before closing the lid, he took another three steps to his right for a scoop of marshmallows. Putting that on top of the drink.

Before I was involved in the Digital Transformation of the Food Industries, I did not take note of such arrangements of different components that make up food or drinks. Such flow involving processes to prepare food doesn't bother me as they are professional in their area, and I got what I wanted in a reasonable time. However, if we are looking at a retailer with a high volume, every second counts towards the customer's waiting time.

The next time you visit a physical retail outlet, pay attention to how they placed every component that makes up the things you are buying. It can be clothes, food, apparel, etc. In Toyota Production System, such additional steps are called "Muda", meaning Wasteful. This is because the extra steps taken contribute to the staff's effort and the customer's waiting time, with no value to the customer.

Imagine you are the staff. Will you feel tired if this is what you are doing?

How might this help in customer engagement when the components are placed in a manner that integrates into how the drinks are prepared. The staff might not need to take those additional steps, and the customer could save that few seconds from their waiting time. Additionally, the team could spend an extra two seconds to engage the customer in a meaningful way that brings a positive Customer Experience.

Yes, such saved only four seconds for the staff and the customer. Is it worth the trouble? Image if we are looking at a thousand customers.

  • Potential savings of 66 minutes of "Muda".
  • If the customers are in a queue, the cascading effect will be significant to those further in the queue.
  • Assuming 50% of the time saved was spent on customer engagement, 33 minutes in exchange for a better CX promotes customer loyalty.

Would you want to find out how you can further save another two more seconds somewhere?

You will appreciate the seconds saved if you are in an amazingly famous queue where people tend to spend hours queuing.

Thoughts Flow

Personally, there are two different extremes that a writer might face when articulating their thoughts in a post, article or book. One might experience that the ideas flow smoothly, sometimes much faster than how fast one can type or write. But, on the other hand, one might be facing blockages where nothing seems to be working and spend an hour staring at a blank screen. This is the flow of thoughts, which is crucial for knowledge workers.

When the thoughts are flowing, we can accomplish a considerable amount of work in a relatively short period. For example, we could write an article within 10 minutes compared to spending more than an hour correcting the sentences to make them flow. Software developers might get the inspiration to code in a different way that's optimised and solve the problem that has been bugging them for weeks. Designers could sketch out their creative works once aligned with the flow.

On many occasions, you get the idea to solve an issue that has been on your mind for quite some time when you are not thinking about it. Usually, I got hit with the "ah-ha" moment when jogging or bathing. My subconscious mind tends to have the best connection with me when I am in either of these two activities. When the moment hits, I will immediately trigger my Apple Watch to set a reminder when I am jogging. When I am bathing, I will try to capture mental notes and immediately pen those down when I am out of the bathroom. I know some placed a set of writing materials in the bathroom, getting ready to note them down.

Do whatever works for you to capture the moment you are in the flow.

Products Flow

Before the COVID-19 pandemic created massive supply chain disruptions worldwide, including the chip shortages, the Thailand flood in 2011 caused a worldwide lack of Hard Disk Drives. Then there's this blockage at the Suez Canal, which is estimated to cost approximately USD54 Billion of trade loss. More recently, the war in Ukraine aggravated the global food crisis.

What have all these in common? The disruption to the flow of products.

A delay in product or supply can trigger many other issues, and I believe that most of us are experiencing this in one way or another. Therefore, I do not intend to articulate much on this aspect. However, if you are in Singapore, the most recent supply disruption in fresh chicken supply might have caused some issues for businesses that rely on this product to execute their business activities.

How might you be affected by all these disruptions of product flow?

Logistic flow is especially crucial for perishable products. Delaying the delivery could have a significant cost impact on the seller.

Enhancing Flow

In my opinion, removing the hurdles that limit flow helps to optimise businesses in many areas.

Easing the flow of people helps to remove tensions and frictions among people, which might affect their mood. Aid by optimised process flow enables the customer to spend less effort making their purchases. A good example is the "One-Click" by Amazon, frictionless buying from the customer's perspective. Then Amazon looks at enabling smooth logistical flow, ensuring you get the items you buy within the shortest possible time. Isn't this a reasonable means to help customers spend more within a shorter time?

Lastly, all these might not be an outcome of persistent thinking within the boundaries but the ability to accept the flow of thoughts. The flow of thoughts might not contain all the practical or implementable ideas, but the ability to aid them helps to release these ideas that can be captured and implemented.

Enabling the "Flow" will not be immediate and might not have a direct monetary outcome. However, persistently limiting these flows might be detrimental to your businesses in the long term.

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