What is the Flow Framework?


Introducing the Flow Framework

The Flow Framework, introduced by Dr. Mik Kersten in his bestselling book, Project to Product, is a set of best practices for measuring and improving flow in software delivery organizations. Since its inception in 2018, the Flow Framework has been adopted by leaders worldwide to bridge the gap between technologists and business stakeholders.  

By visualizing and measuring software delivery according to the Flow Framework, organizations gain unparalleled insight into capacity, dependencies, and waste. Not only does this visibility improve collaboration and trust between business and technology leaders, but it enables wiser, more informed investments.

Organizations using the Flow Framework can:

  • Measure the flow of work through end-to-end product value streams
  • Identify bottlenecks and adjust investment accordingly
  • Monitor the impact of technology or process changes on business outcomes
  • Create a value-driven culture, where strategy guides prioritization

The Flow Framework helps organizations align software delivery activities with business strategy by measuring the flow of value from idea to outcome.

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The driving forces behind the Flow Framework

As startups disrupt every market and tech giants pull further ahead of traditional businesses, most enterprise IT organizations are facing a crisis. Either they learn to operate as high-tech companies or risk becoming digital relics.

Many enterprises, despite investing heavily in Agile transformations, are not adequately responsive or adaptive. Most traditional businesses find that bottlenecks associated with software delivery prevent them from executing growth strategies. In fact, according to Forrester, only 16% can release more than once a month.  

The Flow Framework creates a clear set of metrics that can be shared by both IT and business leaders that abstracts away details like team structure, technical architecture, and tool implementation. Instead, it focuses on business value, namely how much business value is being delivered today and where investments can help deliver more value faster, tomorrow.

The Flow Framework generates its insights directly from the ground truth of what’s happening in the software delivery toolchain – the millions and millions of artifacts (requirements, features, epics, stories, etc.) that represent the actual software delivery work.

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Transitioning from Project to Product with the Flow Framework

Learn how the Flow Framework can guide and measure your organization’s transition to product value streams.

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Moving from project to product thinking

Carlotta Perez, in her 2002 book, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages, describes five technological revolutions:

  1. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in 1771
  2. The Age of Steam and Railways, beginning in 1829
  3. The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering, beginning in 1875
  4. The Age of Oil and Mass Production, beginning in 1908
  5. The Age of Software and Digital, beginning in 1971

She specifies two distinct periods in each revolution: the Installation Period, which heralds a “Cambrian explosion” of startups, followed by the Deployment Period, where new industrial giants start taking over. In between these two phases there is the Turning Point, historically marked by financial crashes and recoveries, where businesses either master the new means of production or decline and become relics of the last age.

The Age of Mass Production saw the development of project management, a delivery model where projects are one-offs that require a specific budget, timeline, and team (which will disperse when the project is complete). Many organizations carried this model into the Age of Software, but they are now at a disadvantage. The front-loaded, rigid approach is incompatible with today’s dynamic, unpredictable markets.    

According to Dr. Mik Kersten, we have entered the turning point in the Age of Software, and the only way forward for large enterprises is to shift from project to product thinking. In a product model, software offerings are conceived of as long-lived product value streams, rather than one-off initiatives. This paradigm shift has implications for funding, team structure, release schedule, and measures of success.

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Project to Product: State of the Industry Report 2023

Combining insights from survey responses with boots-on-the ground data from over 3,600 value streams, this report enables leaders to benchmark their organization’s progress against industry peers and high performers.

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Moving to lean and value stream thinking

A value stream is the sequence of activities an organization undertakes to deliver on a customer need. It comprises the end-to-end delivery process, from idea to outcome.  Value stream management (VSM) is the practice of measuring and improving end-to-end flow, eliminating dependencies and bottlenecks to unlock capacity and deliver value more efficiently.  

The Flow Framework is a blueprint for practicing value stream management. It provides guidance on how to map and measure product value streams to gain full visibility into the work and its impact on business outcomes.

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How to Drive Business Profitability in 2023 with Value Stream Management

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Focusing on the four Flow Items

To measure flow in product value streams, it’s important to first define what flows. In the Flow Framework, units of work that matter to the business are known as Flow Items:  

  • Features: New value added to drive a business result
  • Defects: Fixes for quality problems that affect the customer experience
  • Debts: Improvement of the software architecture and operational architecture
  • Risks: Work to address security, privacy, and compliance exposures

Each Flow Item is a unit of value that is pulled by a customer, either internal or external, through a value stream. It is something for which a customer is willing to exchange economic value, whether in the form of money, time, or adoption. 

Categorizing work according to the Flow Items helps clarify the business value of each unit of work. And when organizations focus on flow, it’s easier for them to prioritize essential work, including work related to modernization, infrastructure, and security.

Measuring flow with Flow Metrics

Flow Metrics measure the end-to-end flow of work through a product value stream. They reveal whether value stream flow is sufficient to support targeted business outcomes (like revenue, cost, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement).

The Flow Metrics are:

Flow Velocity®

The number of Flow Items of each type completed over a particular time period. Flow Velocity measures whether value delivery is accelerating.

Flow Velocity

Flow Time

The time it takes for Flow Items to go from ‘work start’ to ‘work complete’, including both active and wait times. Flow Time helps identify when time-to-market is getting faster.

Flow Time

Flow Efficiency®

The ratio of active time vs. wait time. Flow Efficiency reveals inefficiencies and waste in value stream processes.

Flow Efficiency

Flow Load®

The number of Flow Items currently in progress in a value stream. Flow Load monitors over- and under- utilization of value streams, which can each lead to reduced productivity.

Flow Load

Flow Distribution®

The ratio of the four Flow Items completed over a particular time period. Flow Distribution helps organizations understand tradeoffs and adjust prioritization to meet specific business outcomes.

Flow Distribution

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Flow Metrics: A business leader’s guide to measuring what matters in software delivery

Discover how to measure what matters in software delivery

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Flow Metrics vs. DevOps Metrics: What’s the difference?

DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) metrics are the gold standard for operational efficiency for releasing code rapidly and securely, but they only help optimize a value stream from development to release. This may not be sufficient because, for many organizations, the greatest waste and inefficiencies occur before work gets passed to the development team’s backlog.

Flow Metrics provide more holistic, comprehensive visibility by measuring flow from customer request to release and back again, through the customer feedback loop. Flow Metrics help find bottlenecks constraining work throughout the entire process, including upstream activities like funding, design, and business analysis, and downstream activities like testing and security approvals.

Another key advantage of using Flow Metrics is their direct correspondence to business results. While DORA metrics focus on team activities and incentivize local optimization, Flow Metrics encourage systemic improvement by defining success in relation to business outcomes, such as revenue, cost, quality, customer satisfaction, and employee happiness. With Flow Metrics, every employee can understand the value of their work and trace its impact on business outcomes.  

Measuring the flow of work in the Scaled Agile Framework

The Flow Framework can be used to accelerate Agile transformations and keep them on track. Many organizations have invested heavily or are considering investing in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) to improve their enterprise software delivery, where complex product work spans dozens of Agile development teams. These organizations need a way to measure their progress and improvements.   

By design, the Flow Framework is complementary to the Scaled Agile Framework. In fact, Scaled Agile recommends using Mik Kersten’s Flow Metrics to measure flow and locate impediments to Agility.  

The Flow Framework provides a simple, high-level view of the effect of your Agile transformation on business results. Furthermore, the end-to-end data supplied by Flow Metrics helps inform prioritization during Agile planning ceremonies and serves as a measure of success during retrospectives.   

Measuring flow is especially helpful when conducting continuous improvement activities in SAFe. Fast feedback loops and real-time Flow Metrics allow product leaders to assess whether improvements are having the desired effect and provide insight into what changes should be made in upcoming iterations.

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Measuring Your SAFe® Transformation with Flow Metrics

Whether you are currently on a SAFe® journey or not, the Flow Framework will help you establish your baseline to see where you are today and what you need to do to achieve innovation velocity.

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Technologists and business leaders often have different priorities and perspectives when it comes to software delivery. While DevOps and Agile principles have made an impact on how technologists work, they are overly technology centric and can encourage optimization of a small part of the value stream.

The Flow Framework bridges the gap between business and technology. Using the Framework’s simple, comprehensive Flow Metrics and a product-oriented approach, organizations can make wiser investments, speed up flow, and create a value-focused culture.