by Winslow Swart
When I was a kid, one of the most relied upon modes of transportation was the skateboard. Low-carbon footprint, energy-efficient, easy to store – a sustainable resource. One of the challenges associated with this ideal form of local-motion was carrying capacity. Getting down to a favorite beach break with surfboard under-arm was cumbersome, and on windy days posed a navigational challenge. If you held the board at the wrong angle you would be swept into stationary objects, or worse, oncoming traffic.
Experienced R&D teams have the knee and elbow scars to attest to the learning curve from those experimental days. One day, a technological breakthrough occurred when the surfboard was used as a sail rather than seven feet of awkward cargo. By using the wind to propel and steer the skateboard in the desired direction, there was flow. For businesses and organizations, flow is a key concept.
Flow is the cornerstone of operational efficiency and a touchstone for organizational culture. Toyota is obsessed with kaizen, continuous improvement and the flow of each and every process from beginning to end. Companies dedicated to customer and employee experience are also concerned with flow. When you lose fluidity, you dissatisfy people. Waiting a long time for your meal at a restaurant can be the result of complex problems involving both systems and culture. Just watch the servers dart back and forth erratically as the chaos unfolds. Toyota management experts would trace these steps and draw a “spaghetti diagram” showing redundancies, wasted efforts and defects in process flow.
Whether the problem is techno-structural or cultural, to understanding what makes flow happen is attaining the right viscosity. Viscosity is defined as “a measure of resistance” and the property responsible for "internal friction." Viscosity is about ease of movement, fluidity, or flow. As a model, you can apply this just about anything. Public speaking, acting, athletic performance, sculpting, cycling, driving a car, cooking, customer service - you name it. Think about a human action or operational function, and then think about it without flow. Half of the examples you come up with will have obvious solutions, the other half require in-depth knowledge and inquiry. For straight-forward problems, organizational developers use climate assessments and other people/process indicators. For more complex problems, stream analysis and pareto diagrams mapping flow are sometimes used. Either way, the concepts of viscosity and flow will almost always apply.
Maintaining flow is key when organically comprised tech start-up teams go corporate. In fact flow, both cultural and operational, should be considered a critical success factor in a firm’s strategic plan. The convergence of a creative, high performing team that has solved for market and industry needs with next gen apps and technical solutions - and then organized those resources to bring those innovations to market – is not a plug and play scenario. And neither should be the systems that will manage scale when these new technologies are organized and brought to the corporate fray. The entrepreneurial team has to ask not only what they want to create, but what kind of company they want to be – and then design accordingly. The magical synergy that gave birth to a start-up teams’ innovation, and their ability to work closely together in order to make it useful, is a unique formula – their DNA. This DNA, when understood and used to help shape organizational culture, will be a key to sustaining success and the ability to give birth to future innovations.
A few years after using my surfboard as a sail, I noticed skateboards being sold with little windsurfer-type sails mounted on them. While that seemed like a good commercial idea, I wondered how well you would be able to surf on those triangles of vinyl canvas once you got down to the beach. It turned out the mast was cumbersome when trying to navigate skateboard style turns. In the end, sail-skateboards became about as popular as MySpace.