There are dozens of methodologies, tools, and techniques that organizations use to support their continuous improvement efforts. We find that most successful companies pick a few approaches that work well for them. If improvement work stalls, or a new and different type of challenge arises, they may try another technique. Whether you are just getting started with improvement work or if your practice is mature, you might consider adding a tool known as Kanban.
The Evolution of the Kanban Technique
Like many other improvement ideas, Kanban comes to us from Japan. The word simply means signboard or billboard in Japanese. It is a visual method of managing projects and inventory that was developed after Toyota executives, back in the 1940s, made some observations about how grocery stores are run.
They realized that a grocery store will lose money if they are out of an item that a customer wants to buy, but it also does not make financial sense to have a big inventory of items that might not sell right away. How do grocers get the right balance? They keep a small inventory in the back room and move it to the front when and empty shelf gives them a visual clue that more of a particular product is needed. Only when the backroom inventory gets low, do they order more from suppliers.
Toyota’s leaders applied this same concept to manufacturing. Front line workers pull needed parts from bins, which are only refilled from on-site inventory when they are low. In turn, on-site inventory is only reordered when it is needed. This system creates on-demand, just-in-time inventory management. They added Kanban cards to make the process even more visual. When a Kanban card is received, the depleted product, parts, or inventory is replenished.
How Kanban is Used Today
Although not unlike other Lean management and Kaizen techniques, Kanban originated in manufacturing, today it is used by organizations of almost every type. Visualizing work and inventory can be helpful for any process that progresses from one stage to another.
Software teams have become big fans of the approach, for example, frequently using Kanban boards to track projects as they move from requirements development, to design, to coding, to testing, and finally to production.
The Four Principles of Kanban
The fundamental idea of Kanban is that the flow of items or work should be maximized. In order to reach that objective, these four principles are applied:
- Work is visualized
- Work-in-progress (WIP) is limited
- Interruptions in flow represent potential improvement
- Improvement is continuous
Why You Should Consider Kanban
Instant Insight – People understand visual information significantly faster than they process text. You only need to look at a Kanban board or card for a second to understand the current state of work.
Immediately Spot Backlogs – I like to imagine work as moving through a pipe. It goes in one end and comes out as something with more value on the other. However, if you keep stuffing things into the pipe and nothing is coming out, you’ve got a problem. Kanban boards and cards help alleviate this by making it obvious where work is getting stalled and enabling managers to take the steps necessary to relieve the jam.
Predictable Results – Managers who have good control over their teams are able to easily and accurately predict when projects will be finished. They know well in advance if there is any reason to believe that deadlines will be missed. The Kanban approach helps improve predictability by maximizing and visualizing flow.
There’s nothing magical or complicated about Kanban, but it is an effective way to visualize work and to bring discipline to managing flow. If you find that projects aren’t getting to the finish line, or that one part of the process seems to move faster than the others, you might consider Kanban as a tool that can help.