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What the Heart teaches us about Flow: Lessons for Kanban Practitioners

Updated: Mar 1





The human heart, a marvel of biological engineering, offers profound lessons on flow and balance. As Professional Kanban practitioners, we strive to optimize value by optimizing the flow of work and ensure a harmonious balance in our processes. By understanding how the heart functions, we can gain valuable insights into managing workflow effectively.



The Heart's Rhythmic Flow: A Model for Kanban:

The heart operates with a steady rhythm, maintaining a delicate balance between the volume of blood received and the volume pumped out. This rhythmic flow ensures that every part of the body receives the oxygen and nutrients it needs at a sustainable pace.


Similarly, in Kanban, we aim to achieve a balanced workflow where tasks are completed at a consistent pace, avoiding bottlenecks and overloading, while utilizing all economic resources optimally. By limiting work in progress (WIP), we can maintain a steady rhythm in our processes, akin to the heart's efficient pumping action.


Emulating the heart's steady rhythm, limiting work in progress ensures our processes beat with efficiency and balance.

Clear Policies for a Healthy Heartbeat:

The heart's function is regulated by clear policies, such as the opening and closing of valves and the precise timing of electrical signals. These policies ensure that blood flows in the right direction and at the right time.


In Kanban, making policies explicit is equally important. By clearly defining our workflow rules, such as WIP limits and process steps, we create a transparent and efficient system where everyone knows what to do and when to do it, much like the coordinated actions and responsibilities of each of the heart's chambers and blood vessels.


Mirroring the heart's synchronized chambers, explicit and transparent policies empower our teams with clarity and purpose.

Monitoring Metrics for Optimal Flow:

Just as doctors monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and other metrics to assess cardiac health, Kanban practitioners use metrics like cycle time and throughput to evaluate the flow of work. These metrics help us identify areas for improvement and ensure that our workflow remains healthy and efficient.


Just as vital signs guide heart health, metrics like work item age, cycle time and throughput act as our workflow's pulse, signaling when it's time to optimize.

Learning from Blockages:

The heart can face blockages that impede blood flow, leading to complications.


In Kanban, blockers can similarly disrupt the flow of work. By identifying and addressing these impediments and their root causes promptly, we can ensure a smooth workflow, much like medical interventions that restore proper blood flow in the heart.


Similar to how medical interventions clear heart blockages, swiftly addressing workflow impediments ensures uninterrupted value flow.

Adapting for Continuous Improvement:

The heart's ability to adapt to different demands, such as increased activity during exercise, showcases its capacity for continuous improvement and responsiveness to the needs of the body.


In Kanban, we embrace this principle by regularly soliciting feedback, and reviewing and adjusting our processes to meet changing needs and optimize flow.


Much like consistent healthy habits sustain heart vitality, embracing feedback and adaptation nurtures enduring workflow health.

The human heart, with its remarkable ability to maintain a balanced and efficient flow, serves as a powerful metaphor for Kanban practitioners. By drawing lessons from the heart's functioning, we can improve our flow, ensuring that our processes are as healthy and effective, efficient, predictable and sustainable as the heart that sustains life. Let the heart inspire us to strive for a workflow that beats with the rhythm of optimal efficiency and balance.


"The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion." – Terry Orlick

This article is born from the creative flow of April Jefferson and Anjali Leon.

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