Forget batch work. Continuous flow is your ticket to a more efficient way of working

When car magnate Henry Ford famously said ‘you can have any color, so long as it’s black,’ he inadvertently highlighted a big issue with batch manufacturing: You work on a specific thing, or type of thing, until it’s ready, then deliver it to the customer.

This may sound efficient, but in reality, there are issues — namely, a lack of flexibility. What if you don’t want a black car? This means you’ll have to wait until that entire batch is finished before you can even entertain the idea of any other option.

Multiply that by several colors, cars, and orders, and you can see how wait times add up. And, as a customer, why wait when you can just go somewhere else?

This is where another car manufacturer stepped up and changed the game: Toyota.

Toyota Production Systems, as it’s formally known, invented a process continuous flow — and it’s been changing manufacturing and just about every other industry since. Here’s everything you need to know about this Lean management essential.

What is continuous flow?

Continuous flow is a not-so-distant cousin of just-in-time and kanban approaches. All focus on speeding up production flow and reducing waste through ongoing improvements.

With continuous flow, the goal is to create a one-piece flow system whereby one item can move through every step into the entire process, instead of working in batches.

To use a real-life example, imagine a bakery has to create 100 wedding cakes. A batch process would be to focus all your efforts on making the base of a cake, times 100. Then the next tier, until they’re all done. Then the final one, then icing, and so on. The end result is that there’s a large gap where nothing’s produced, and then — BAM! 100 cakes.

With a continuous flow setup, the bakery would start with the base, then, rather than putting it to one side and moving onto the next base, moving it through to the next stage of production (tier two), and so on until it’s iced and ready to go.

The end result is that you have one complete wedding cake ready to go, in a much shorter time. Keep this process moving, and you have a continuous stream of wedding cakes flying out your bakery doors. Customers don’t have to hang around until 100 are ready, and your bakery doesn’t have big stretches of time where the counter staff have nothing to do.

This trick applies to bakeries, but it also works for knowledge industry jobs: from software development teams to marketing agencies.

What are the limitations of continuous flow?

Producing one item at a time, or working in small batches improves speed, while improving the ratio of value-added to non-value-added work. It also reduces changeover time (something that happens whenever someone needs to move onto a different stage of the process is also considered waste, and limits the resources for value-adding work, while increasing handling time and complexity.

That said, there are some considerations to bear in mind: Your batch size needs to be balanced against the resource capacity at the value-adding processes.

Or, in other words, you can only work with what you have — and if you don’t have enough resources to do each stage by itself, you may need to work with slightly bigger batches. For example, if there are

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