Principles of energy flow

Flow measures the amount of energy moving through a process. The goal of process improvement work is to increase the flow of energy through a given process, by reducing waste and removing obstacles to that flow.

Understanding the concept of flow is essential to the study and practice of process science. After all, as the First Process Principle states: “Energy flows through processes to create value”. In order to optimize a given process and increase the value it creates, a process scientist must be able to see how energy flows through that process. This ability is known as process vision

Defining flow

The term flow represents directional, continuous, uninterrupted motion. In a process science context, the definition of flow is:

A measurement of the amount of energy moving through a process

In its natural state, energy moves in an uninhibited way throughout a process. However, real world processes typically contain numerous obstacles to flow. This can be due to a range of factors, including poor planning, not understanding the value of the process, and sometimes unavoidable constraints.

Illustration of energy flow through a process blocked by obstacles.
Illustration of energy flow through a process blocked by obstacles.

Increasing flow

In humans, there is a concept known as cognitive flow, or what is sometimes referred to as flow state. Cognitive flow is experienced by increasing the natural energy flowing through your body, allowing a greater ability to focus on the process at hand. Business process flow is the same idea as cognitive flow: increasing energy flow through the business. The difference is that the energy flowing through a business is human labor (physical energy) and money. 

Energy flow is like a powerful river. A river runs freely and continuously in a single direction unless its movement is blocked by an obstacle, like a rock or log. Imagine you want to divert the course of that river. You would need to do a lot of work and spend a lot of resources to build a dam. In the same way, energy flow naturally has a directional and continuous movement and it costs energy to block it.

Illustration of the impact on the flow of energy when moving through a process impeded by obstacles
Illustration of the impact on the flow of energy when moving through a process impeded by obstacles

This is why, if we want a process to create greater value while maintaining the same (or less) cost to run, we have to make it easier for energy to move through the process. We can increase the output of a process by adding additional energy into the process (for instance, by adding staff or buying more materials). But this approach increases the cost of running the process, and eventually produces diminishing returns. It is more effective to start by identifying and removing existing obstacles to flow.

There are many benefits to improving energy flow by getting rid of obstacles throughout business processes. These include:

  • Better quality products / services
  • Lower cost of operations
  • Faster cycles for business changes
  • Improved ability to measure, analyze, and control processes

Measuring and improving flow

We can measure flow as the amount of units of value which a process can create in a given amount of time:

flow of X process = units of value created / time the process takes to run

A “unit of value” in a business process can be visualized as a single discrete output of that process which someone will pay for. For example, a single product, consulting deliverable, service session, etc. 

When we analyze a process to identify and remove obstacles to flow, this is known as process improvement. If we want to measure the success of process improvement work, we can compare the energy (e.g. cost, time) it takes the process to produce a single unit before and after making changes. This helps us figure out whether our improvement efforts are working, which is a vital element of the process improvement cycle.

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