I attended a conference recently where there were several hundred people in attendance. When lunch time was approaching, an announcement was made that went something like this:Floor indicator in the Otis elevator ...

"Lunch will be served in the third-floor atrium. (We were on the first floor.) You will find the elevator around to your left as you exit the auditorium. The elevator is pretty big--it holds about 25 people. The stairs will be on your right."


Now, not unsurprisingly, I discovered that the vast majority of the folks in attendance at the conference barely glanced at the elevator. Instead, they headed intuitively toward the relatively narrow stairs leading upward.


I was a bit surprised by the narrowness of the stairs leading up two full stories to the atrium. The stairs could only handle about two people abreast as they ascended.

Why did people turn to the stairs intuitively?

As I watched folks make steady progress up the narrow stairs, I could not help but ask myself: "What made the vast majority of folks in that auditorium turn instinctively toward the stairs, instead of taking the 'easy way' via the elevator?"


I think the answer to that question was simple.


The majority of people quickly reasoned this out in their minds (although most, I'm convinced, would not have articulated it in this way):

  1. If I take the elevator, I will be spending far more time "waiting" than I will spend "making progress."
  2. If I take the stairs, I will lose less time in "waste" (waiting) and spend more time "making progress." Chances are I will get to my destination faster via the stairs than via the elevator.

Value-added time versus Non-value-added time


Elevators must carry people in "batches."


While the "batch" may be fairly large relative to the size of the group (in this case, ~25 out of a few hundred), it still means that substantial portion of time will be spent in "wait time" (non-value-added) versus "progress" (actually riding the elevator upwards toward the destination).


When transporting a large group of people in only one direction (up, in this case), more than half the time an elevator is working it is involved in non-value-added activity. It's only value-added activity is the upward transportation of the people toward their destination. Opening and closing the doors at each end of the elevator's traverse and the time required to reposition the elevator from the third floor to the first floor are non-value-added activity for the elevator's "customers," in this case.


On the other hand, the stairway, while offering transport toward the destination more slowly, operated in a continuous flow.


For those taking the stairs, there was no non-value-added activity. Every moment moved these folks closer to their destination. No time was wasted in the operation. Everything was value-added.

Now you see it...


When the difference between "batch" operations and "continuous flow" operations involves our persons and our personal time we become intuitively aware of the differences--the efficiency of the one and the inefficiency of the other.


However, we may very readily miss these very same principles at work in our enterprise's operations or our supply chains because it is goods or services moving or being impeded from progress and not our very selves.

Now you don't!


Interestingly, when the goods or services we produce spend (in many cases) more than 90 percent of their time in non-value-added queue time and wait time in our production or supply chain operations, we may not take note of it at all. We may not even consider how much better (read: more profitable, more productive) it might be if we could move closer to "continuous flow" than in these operations.


We may not give credence to such thoughts for no better reason than, "We've always done it this way," or because profits are "acceptable" at present levels. Never mind that both profit and cash-flow might be significantly improved if we were to consider the reduction of waste (non-value-added activity).

Take steps, not a giant leap, toward improvement


Perhaps we can't move to "continuous flow" operations immediately.


Maybe we just don't see a way to get there. But there may be incremental steps you can take.


Cut batch sizes in half starting tomorrow. Slash away at replenishment cycles in your supply chains. Base purchase agreements across your supply chain on the quantity of goods purchased over time--say, six months or a year--instead of the size of a single order (transport batch size). Then find ways to reduce the transport batch size and increase the replenishment frequency.

More toward continuous flow in any way you can


Begin doing, in your own operations and all across your supply chain, what you intuitively do for yourselves all the time!


Remember, almost every large store and shopping mall has both elevators and escalators--as do airports, for example. Yet, I dare say that better than 99 percent of folks in these venues intuitively take the escalators (i.e., continuous flow) instead of the elevators (i.e., batch operations). They recognize it is better, faster and more efficient for them while they may deny the same "better," "faster" and "more efficient" continuous flow to the goods and services in their supply chains.


What's wrong with this picture?

Now we see it; now we don't!


Let's start "seeing it" all the time.




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