Flow is faster…

I had a moment of “eureka” about a month ago. It happened while I was thinking about the way people develop products. Product development is a tricky proposition, but you don’t need to take my word for it, many people have the battle scars to prove it or bald “project management” tires from constantly jamming on the brakes and then hitting the accelerator.

It’s easy to describe the trance I was in when I had had my eureka moment. Anyone that’s traveled for business can picture the scene. I was vaguely watching a reality show, on one of the gazillion hotel cable channels, while checking email and reviewing a presentation I would be delivering the following morning. I settled on a commercial (probably had something to do with food), and waited for the regularly scheduled show to come back on. It was about five minutes in to the program. To be honest, I can’t remember the shows name or what channel it was on, but it featured four highly skilled military experts as they competed in feats of strength, speed, and intelligence. By the end of the episode, and three challenges, there was one ultimate winner. The contestants all had very similar backgrounds and experience, except for one whom I’ll refer to as old-timer. He was a 40 something retired Army Special Ops going up against three 20 something’s who looked ready to cause others pain. I remember thinking “I feel for you old man, but you’re going down…”

The first challenge was a multi-laser course. Each contestant had to crawl, walk, jump and sometimes flip through a series of laser beams. Then they had to hit a switch and repeat the whole process in reverse to get back to the starting line. The challenge was a little frustrating because if a contestant broke a laser beam it would set off an alarm and they would have to reset and start over. First up was old-timer and as I watched him take his time (and I mean Take. His. Time.). He took so much time they went to commercial and, to my surprise, when they came back from the break he finally finished; albeit with an unimpressive time of 4 plus minutes. I remember laughing out loud, as the course was not that long and I thought, “watch out old-timer, here come the young bucks…” I continued to watch and the most unexpected thing happened, time after time the young bucks tried to speed through the course. The faster they went, the quicker they would trip a laser and have to start over. When it was all said and done, old-timer was the fastest.

Here’s the part that made me drop my laptop and pay total attention to this crazy show. When they interviewed old-timer on his first win they asked him how he did it. He said “flow is faster”. He actually said something like “smooth is faster” or “slow is faster”. More important though, was what he said next. It was something like “I slowed down, surveyed my obstacles and challenges, then I tried my best to prioritize my skill and capability. I knew I needed to keep the clock in mind, but my overall goal was to finish without error”.  At this point I know I said “Holy Shit” out load. I remember thinking that old-timer just explained product development! Flow is faster.

Think about what he said and think about the day-to-day challenges when developing products, engineering, and manufacturing. People are constantly trying to rush a change request or release something to the shop floor without verification. Time and time again companies try to produce a product only to find lead-time was atrocious and on-time-delivery is in jeopardy. Loopbacks, communication problems, pointing fingers, it all comes down to one simple thing, which I can guarantee isn’t easy. Flow. If you can map out and master the flow of your product development system and get everyone to take ownership and buy into a defined system, no short-cutting and no panicked reactions, you will finish strong. Slow down, observe your obstacles and challenges, prioritize your skills and capabilities and keep an eye on the end goal. I’m confident that if you give it a chance you will find that “flow” really is faster, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Listen to the old-timer.

He won the whole thing.