The Power of Flow

In popular psychology, when the topic of “flow” comes up, so does the name of professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “ME-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”), who identified and researched the state of flow — when you’re totally absorbed in performing a task.

In construction, “flow” is one of the principles of the lean business model. Lean principles are designed to maximize value to the customer and minimize waste in any business process.

As a superintendent, you may think you’re focused on flow day in and day out, but Schroeder is committed to elevating your game. He recommends spending some time on YouTube, listening to the teachings of researcher Niklas Modig, co-author, with Pär Åhlström, of This Is Lean.

When applying lean to the construction industry, Schroeder says there are two different things on which a superintendent needs to focus: flow efficiency and resource efficiency.

Getting into the right kind of flow.

First, let’s be clear on the terms:

  • “Flow efficiency” is when a unit of finished goods comes down the line to the customer in the shortest possible time with the highest level of quality.
  • “Resource efficiency” focuses on how busy you are keeping a particular resource, tool, or piece of equipment.

Schroeder uses his filming of a video as an example: The flow unit is how quickly the finished video gets into the hands of the customer with the highest quality. Those who are concerned with flow efficiency will be looking across the entire video production process.

By contrast, those concerned with resource efficiency will prioritize the use of the camera. If you simply want to keep the camera busy, soon you’ll be overproducing and things will start to pile up, without getting finished. Which slows down the entire production system.

“And so it's important to prioritize the product, not the resources used to finish the product,” says Schroeder. In the dirt world, this means attaching the workers to the work, rather than the reverse — attaching the work to the workers.

“Meaning, that if this camera right here stays idle for a couple of days, who cares as long as the film is getting its way to the end customer on a rhythm at the fastest pace?” asks Schroeder. “But, if we want to optimize that camera, and always have it be busy, then you, the customer, will wait for this video to come out, because we're overproducing and wasting time.”

Setting the right priorities.

As superintendents on your projects, what is the flow unit for you?

In an automobile manufacturing plant, the car is the flow unit. It’s getting finished from process step to process step. But, in construction, the actual finished product is stationary. And so the tools are what flows past that stationary product, as Schroeder explains. “So you, your trades, your foremen, and the workers in the processes on your project site are the flow units.”

“And you need to make sure that those people, those processes, and that equipment are flowing from area to area in as much of an uninterrupted flow as possible — with the shortest overall project duration, at the highest quality.”

When you create a typical schedule that says, hey, go here, go there, go everywhere, you’re not creating flow. The biggest priority, in order to make money, is to have your trades flowing from area to area in a seamless flow. Most of your costs come from worker hours, so that’s where you make or lose money.

Schroeder specifies three types of flow on a construction site:

  • Workflow, meaning how the work is flowing within an area
  • Trade flow, or how the trades flow from area to area
  • Logistical flow, as in what direction you are going through the areas

“You need to adopt a mentality and scheduling systems that allow you to see all three types of flow and you need to prioritize trade flow and you will not randomly change the schedule, move people all around randomly, says Schroeder. "You will plan your work in a sequence with consistent crew sizes, with materials hitting at just the right time when workers are ready for them and when the materials are ready to be installed. You will form a stable system of flow in your project site.”


“As a superintendent, have small batch sizes. Finish as you go. Do it right the first time. Reduce variation. Create stable environments, and make sure that your crews have stability and consistency by creating that trade flow.”

If you need additional resources, Schroeder suggests you research Takt time planning, read books like The Goal or The Bottleneck Rules, or you reach out for consulting help.

“But I'm telling you,” concludes Schroeder, “the typical ways that we think — meaning economies of scale, mass production — are only going to slow you down. And so, as a superintendent, as a part of stabilizing yourself, your team and your project, you also have to stabilize your schedule with flow.”

Join the thousands of Dirt pros who get our top workforce development tips.