The Other Flow of Csíkszentmihályi

Mihaly CsíkszentmihályiThose of us in the Lean world are accustomed to discussing “flow” – where work is performed in an even manner to reduce mura. Activities are synchronized, layouts are optimized, resources are available exactly where and when they are needed, and the pace is set by true demand. The operation just hums along creating value for the customer. Well, “just” is a bit of a misnomer as we know how difficult achieving flow can be.

I remember being introduced to the work of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi decades ago in a psychology class, and have recently become reacquainted with him while researching motivation and productivity. Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist of Hungarian decent and a professor at Claremont, has also developed a theory of flow from an individual perspective – see his TED Talk.

Different than Lean flow?  Or maybe not?

Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow is being completely absorbed by what you are doing, energized, and with the creative juices flowing.   Many of us already think of it as “being in the zone.”  It is truly a positive, invigorating experience, as opposed to “hyperfocus” which can be negative.

blog-Challenge_vs_skillHe began researching the concept out of fascination for artists and other professionals that became so engrossed in their work that they forgot about all else, sometimes including basic needs.  As the the model at the right shows, flow happens when the skill level and challenge environment is high.  The ability to be creative and accomplished in such a situation is very fulfilling.

Csíkszentmihályi once described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Flow has parallels with concepts in Eastern religions and philosophy.  Buddhism talks about “action with inaction” and Taoism has “doing without doing.  The Hindu Ashtavakra Gita and Bhagavad-Gita have similar descriptions.

Components of flow include a challenge-skill balance, the merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task, transformation of time, and the autotelic experience.  He dove deeper into the autotelic personality, which is when people do work because it is intrinsically rewarding instead of to obtain external goals.  Aspects of the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility.

So is it really different than the concept of flow in Lean?

Completely involved, every action following inevitably from the previous, using skills to the utmost, clarity of goals, immediate feedback, curiosity, humility.  Sounds like a finely-tuned work cell.

Well funny we should stumble on that comparison. Csíkszentmihályi did go on to research “group flow,” where both individuals as well as the group are able to achieve flow, with the characteristics being:

  • Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables; thus work primarily standing and moving
  • Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness, safe place, result wall, open topics
  • Parallel, organized working
  • Target group focus
  • Experimentation and prototyping
  • Increase in efficiency through visualization
  • Using differences among participants as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle

Add visual controls, open and transparent communication, and experimentation to the similarity with Lean.

Which perhaps reminds us of one of the reasons Lean work cells work: they create a fulfilling, productive, and improving operation by leveraging and rewarding the brains of humans.