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To Better Understand Kanban, Have a Burrito

Posted by Greg Jacobson

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Oct 22, 2014 11:16:00 AM

shutterstock_77458810The Kanban method, often implemented in conjunction with the Lean business process methodology, was created as part of the Toyota Production System to help Toyota become more efficient way back in the 1940’s.  Since then, Kanban has been used and adapted to move materials in hospitals and to manage work in software companies and construction projects. 

Kanban is all about visualization.  In fact, the word Kanban means signboard or billboard in Japanese.  Here are the guiding principles:

  1. Work is visualized
  2. Work-in-progress (WIP) is limited
  3. Interruptions in flow represent potential improvement
  4. Improvement is continuous

A Burrito Will Make it All Make Sense

I have no idea whether or not the burrito giant, Chipotle uses Lean or Kanban as an organization, but their burrito manufacturing process exemplifies the method beautifully. Here’s how:

Work is visualized – What could be more visual than the making of a burrito? There’s never any doubt what is being worked on or where it is between the tortilla steamer and the cash register.

Work-in-progress is limited – You’ll notice that there are only 2 burrito steamers. Why not have 10? Because while you can steam 10 burritos at the same time, you can’t fill and garnish them in bulk. You must limit the output of the steamers so that you don’t create a backlog of burritos to be filled. This impacts the entire line. You often see a bottleneck at a coffee shop when the person taking orders at the register can work faster than the barista or baristas who are making drinks. When empty cups with customer names stack up in front of the espresso machine, you see the impact of not limiting work-in-progress (for example, more errors get made when they are more cups in queue).

Interruptions in flow represent potential improvement – Let’s say the person responsible for salsa and veggies just isn’t feeling it today. If the salsa service is slow, the impact will be felt all the way back down the line and the tortilla steaming will come to a stop. The cashiers will have nothing to do.  Managers and other team members will immediately recognize that this station is struggling and act to improve the situation.

Improvement is continuous – One successful burrito does not a franchise make. The need to monitor the line for interruptions in flow is constant. If you replace the salsa server who’s not on her game, that doesn’t mean you won’t later run out of rice. Improvement is a constant effort. When problems occur (and trust me, they will), we have to not just fight the proverbial fires. We have to also solve problems in a systematic way so that they are less likely to reoccur during the next lunch rush.

Not Every Business Model Involves Burritos

The burrito business is a convenient example because it is so clearly visual and people work on something that resembles an "assembly line." Of course, that’s not true for all businesses, but the principles of Kanban can still be applied. Many organizations use Kanban boards, which visually lay out work to allow us to visualize and manage flow.

There are many different software products on the market for creating electronic Kanban boards, but even simple post-it notes on a whiteboard can be effective. Here’s an example of a simple Kanban board.


Why Do Companies use Kanban?

Visualization turns data into knowledge – Kanban boards give you instant insight into the flow of work, or lack thereof. There’s no need to dig through emails or analyze a complex Gantt chart. You simply look and know.

Things get finished – If your organization has the habit of starting 20 projects and finishing 2, Kanban may be exactly what you need. Because one thing can’t move from one step to the next until its predecessor is complete, work makes it to the finish line. WIP limits prevent us from taking on too much and completing nothing.

The focus is on value – Because work in progress is limited, teams are forced to have single-minded attention on work that brings value to the customer.  

It’s non-threatening – Kanban is not prescriptive of how each task is done, so it is more easily accepted by staff than major overhauls of processes.  In fact, if you already have good processes in place, Kanban makes them even better by introducing the visual element.

You can predict results – An important benefit of this visualization is that it becomes very easy to predict when work will be delivered because flow has been improved.

Kanban is an excellent way to improve your processes, eliminate waste and ensure customer value. It makes sense to consider it either alone or as part of another process improvement methodology. To explain it to your team, simply take them to Chipotle, which is where I’m headed now. Or, you can see similar elements of flow at sandwich shops with employees working on a line that you can see. See you there, enjoy your lunch!

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Topics: Lean, Kanban

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