What is KANBAN?

Kanban is a visual way to manage tasks and workflows, which utilizes a kanban board.

The Kanban boards are depicted with cards and columns. The cards represent tasks, and the columns organize those tasks by their progress or current stage in development.

Kanban—is a Japanese word for “billboard”

Just as the billboard is visually perceived by the onlookers, the Kanban board is perceived by the team performing the manufacturing task. The task for the team is visually posted on the kanban board with columns and cards, so the team performing the task gets the visual picture of :

  • STORIES (description),
  • TO DO (list)
  • IN PROGRESS (task)
  • TESTING (of the task completed so far)
  • DONE (completion of the task)

It’s a kind of zoning of the work in progress which says 

-what is the task,

-what is to be done,

-what is in progress,

-what testings are being performed for the task which is near completion and 

-what is done or achieved?

Kanban was developed by Toyota in the 1940s. It was originally a scheduling system to execute “just-in-time” manufacturing. It was designed to improve efficiency by limiting supplies and resources to what was needed for the immediate task. 

Today, Kanban is implemented in many industries for its simplicity to learn and interpret by both skilled /unskilled labour performing tasks, supervisors, and project managers monitoring the task. The visual versatility and easy communications displayed on Kanban boards have become the guiding force for easy flow and efficiency of the task assigned.

Typically the Kanban board is prominently displayed (like a billboard) in various departments according to their task and action so that there is action clarity for team members and supervisors on day to day and case by case activities to achieve goals of an organization. 

It is also available in the software version for more detailed interpretation and ease of execution.

Teams enjoy using this system due to its ease of use, visual interface, and ability to instantly see what everyone is working on. It also provides visibility into task progress, and whether a specific task is holding up the project.

History of Kanban

Kanban has come a long way to become an essential part of the lean management methodology in practice today. The history of Kanban harks back starting during the Edo period in Japan In the 16 th century.

1600’s: The roots of Kanban

In 1603, after the 14th-century’s devastating constant military conflicts and social upheaval Japan entered a period of stability and economic growth. 

 The country’s economy started flourishing.  The streets of Japanese towns started becoming crowded with shops and local businesses thriving. This was also the time when competition became fierce and quality consciousness and prices reigned the consumer mind. 

It’s on these streets where the term “kanban” was born. 

The Kanban name comes from two Japanese words, “Kan” 看 meaning sign, and “Ban” 板 meaning a board.

As the streets became more crowded, shop owners started to make custom shop signs – “KanBans” – to draw passersby attention and tell them about the kind of services rendered by each shop. Kanban also became a quality service  sign 

Soon after, Kanban sign designers started to compete by designing and crafting artistically the Kanban signboards, to make them stand out from other Kanban signs on the street.

Kanban signs were now a hallmark of quality services and status of services offered inside the store and just like modern Kanban Cards, they were able to communicate their content clearly and concisely.

Toyota’s experience with Lean Kanban in manufacturing

After the second world war, the Japanese car industry was in stagnation. Japanese cars were (and are) economically priced and have greater fuel efficiency, unlike American cars.

However, Toyota was firmly making a loss and could not compete at all with any of the American car manufacturers.

 Toyota was in such poor shape that they were not able to hire any new staff. 

During this lean phase  Toyota’s CEO, Kiichiro Toyoda, was on a mission to change that. Realizing that the tenfold difference in productivity between USA car manufacturers and Toyota cannot be explained solely by the lack of equipment and sophistication with which the American cars were produced. He set the company on a quest to equalize productivity with American automotive manufacturers setting the target of three years. 

Even though such an ambitious goal seemed attainable, it had set the company on a course of innovation and optimization of work organization which would guide Toyota to make it competitive in the marketplace. 

This change in company culture cleared the path for Taiichi Ōno, a young industrial engineer who had just been transferred to Toyota Motor Company in 1943.

 Taiichi Ōno had a strict-but-fair character and quickly rose through the ranks at Toyota. In 1949 with his upright temperament and hard work,  he became the machine shop manager.

This allowed him to start experimenting with new tools and principles of work organization. In 1954 he was promoted to a director position.

Taiichi had uncanny eyes for waste which accompanied the Toyota car manufacturing. He believed this waste  could be eliminated and turned into savings for the company.

He identified and categorized seven kinds of waste (jap. MUDA), which lead to a decrease in system throughput and performance.

The seven kinds of waste in manufacturing are;

  • Transport
  • Inventory
  • Motion
  • Waiting
  • Overproduction
  • Overprocessing
  • Defects

The Seven kinds of waste (Muda)

He also noticed overproduction which exceeded the customer demand was a waste. Also customer demands may change over time due to market forces and so actually keeping a large inventory of raw materials incurred blockage of the company’s fund. The only solution to this apparent paradox was to produce what is needed and only when it’s needed. It required keeping the stocks to a minimum while ensuring a smooth and high flow of work through the whole process. 

However, this approach had its problems. It was difficult to predict 

How to signal that a new product in demand is required to  be produced?

 How to propagate this signal back to the production line and eventually to the raw materials suppliers?

These questions bugged Taiichi.

But he got the solution when he saw the operations of a supermarket PIGGLY WIGGLY when he visited the United States in 1956.  

He was impressed by how supermarket chain PIGGLY WIGGLY  was able to keep the shelves stocked with just the right amount of each product both on the shelves and in the inside of the store stock room.  He also observed the consumers receiving their stocks and the stocks were quickly replenished on the shelves.

He visualized the track of supplies backward i.e. the replenishing from the store shelves to receiving them in the stockyard of the store to ordering from the vendors/manufacturers.

After coming back to Japan he thought of implementing this backward moment he saw at the supermarket. He began to use paper cards for signaling and tracking demand in his factory, and named the new system “Kanban”.

How did the Kanban system work?

  • Kanban cards were attached to every finished product, and once it was sold, the cards would move back to the production line.
  • Team members only worked on the new item as the card signaling a demand for it moved back to them, and once the number of pending Kanban cards reached their defined threshold (department)
  • Every material used during production also had its own Kanban card attached, so that the demand signal would ultimately flow down through(backward) the whole production chain, ending on external suppliers.
  • Such a system reduced stockpiles, improved throughput, and provided high visibility into the process. Its usage quickly spread through the entire Machining Division as it was extremely functional and eliminated waste and confusion during the production processes.

In 1963 a plan was developed to propagate it further to the whole company, and shortly it was adopted in nearly all processes at Toyota.

The power of the Kanban application was such that Toyota went from operating at a loss to the global competitor it has become today. 

Eventually, Taiichi rose through all of the senior ranks of the company and became an executive vice president in 1975. His work gave rise not only to the new meaning of “Kanban” but also laid the foundation for modern management techniques, known as Toyota Production System.

 The Evolution of Kanban Method

At the onset of the millennium, the IT and software industry expanded at unprecedented speed and started becoming popular in other industries.

The leading  players in the software industry  realized how Kanban could be used in other industries and services and foster speed, logistics, and savings.  Kanban which was in the automotive industry started becoming popular for its versatility and simplicity. 

 The Kanban Method started evolving in the beginning of 2007 and many industries adopted the method worldwide.

How does the Kanban methodology work?

The Kanban methodology works on 4 core principles.

The 4 Core Principles of Kanban

David J. Anderson, a pioneer in the field of Lean Kanban for knowledge work has formulated the Kanban method based on 4 core principles.

According to David J.Anderson In today’s business world every organization faces the uncertainty of the global business market that is vast and changes every day. There is a fear of uncertainty coupled with the lack of understanding of current political/economic/social situations worldwide for an organization to take into consideration. This leads to bring lack of  proper projections of the business which leads to hinder the project’s flow

Thus, organizations try to cover a wider spectrum of their activities to make it near foolproof  which increases the burden on their business processes.

Here Kanban methodology comes to their rescue and offers them two basic concepts: to limit demands and increase their capabilities. His idea is to limit the risks and improve the organization’s capabilities in focusing on getting things done.

His principles can be broken down into four basic principles and six practices.

Principle 1: Start With What You Do Now

The versatility of Kanban lies in its adaptability to get into the

existing workflows, systems and processes without disrupting what is already successfully being done.

Kanban will naturally get into the present workflow and highlight issues that need to be addressed in a non-disruptive way as possible.

Kanban will be adapted to all types of organization’s work processes without fear of over-commitment or ‘culture shock’.

This makes Kanban easy to implement in any type of organization as there is no need to make sweeping changes right from the start.

Principle 2: Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change

The Kanban is designed to  encourages continuous small incremental  changes to the current process.

In general, sweeping changes are discouraged because they usually encounter resistance due to fear or uncertainty and sometimes prevalent egos at the decision-making levels.

Principle 3: Respect the Current Process, Roles & Responsibilities

Kanban recognizes that existing processes, roles, responsibilities, and titles have value and are to be honored.

The Kanban method does not resist change, but neither does it consider the whole truth. It encourages incremental, logical, changes without triggering fear of change by itself. It remains flexible and accommodative all the time.

Principle 4: Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels

Kanban believes in creating leaders at all levels which come from people of the teams itself.

While it encourages the mindset of continuous improvement (Kaizen) in each member of the team to reach the optimal performance of the entire team/department/company, Kanban believes in creating new leaderships to lead from the front.

What are the practices of Kanban?

There are six core practices as identified by David Anderson that need to be present for successful implementation.

1. Visualize the Workflow

While the idea of Kanban is to come backward i.e. from the point of consumption to what is to be produced to meet the consumption (demand) it becomes a lot easier to set up the Kanban board.

The first and most important thing is to understand what it takes to get an item from a request to make it a deliverable product. Then the process is set backward i.e. from the point of need to the point of processing.

This will be executed by observing and knowing how the flow of work currently functions (both backward and forward) and then making necessary changes. 

This can be easily done by the Kanban system (or board), with the help of cards and columns. Each Kanban card will represent a work item and each column on the board will represent a step in the workflow.

As the work progresses for say item X, the flow will be from the “To Do” to “Done” by filling the status of the process in the columns. This way it is easy to track progress spot bottlenecks and ensure delivery flow from process to request point.

2. Limit Work in Progress.

Setting up work-in-progress (WIP) limits on each process step (column) will ensure that problems with the workflow become visible on the board.  As the work progresses for the task  bottlenecks and unused capacity will become apparent. It can then be resolved on a case by case basis.

Some columns will get crowded and some columns may seem less crowded or less populated. It will signal the team to work together to resolve them and work more effectively.

This way the balance will be created  with the work in progress (WIP)

This is known as the pull systems work: The work moves on the board to the right- towards the completion. This also causes the availability signals to move to the left (  for the upstream movement ). 

3. Manage Flow

The whole idea of implementing the Kanban system ensures the creation of a smooth healthy flow with speed and logistics. By flow, it means the movement of work items through the production process moves smoothly.

Kanban also focuses on managing the flow which is about managing the work but not the people.  Instead of micro-managing people and trying to keep them busy all the time, Kanban focuses on managing the work processes and understanding how to get that work through the system faster. This will automatically manage people.

This will also eliminate ambiguity and sometimes politics in the workplace.

The fast and smooth flow of the system will also create value quickly which can minimize the average cycle time for production and avoid the cost of delay in a predictable style of working.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit

It is imperative that to improve a process it should be first understood. This is why the process should be clearly defined, published, and popularized in the team. People do not get involved in something they do not believe would be useful.

When everyone is familiar with the common goal, they would be able to work and make decisions regarding a change that will move you in a positive direction.

The common goal will also ensure everybody involved in the process will speak the common language at the site.

5. Feedback Loops

Kanban application in a process also propagates that regular meetings are necessary for knowledge transfer (feedback loops).

These meetings are the daily stand up meetings for team synchronization. They are held in front of the Kanban board and every member tells the others what he or she did the previous day and what will be doing today.

The team leader may also announce the performance report of each member and applaud the best performance of the previous day. 

There are also the service delivery review, the operations review, and the risk review meeting. It is quite customary with organizations adopting Kanban to have a standup meeting of about 10 to 15 minutes in the morning some time with an oath or specially composed chorus which everybody sings.

6. Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)

It is observed that continuous improvement, innovation, and team spirit is built through holding meetings and often reviewing the vision and mission of the department or the organization conscious of Kanban implementation.

Teams that have a shared understanding of theories about work, workflow, process, and risk are more likely to build a shared comprehension of a problem and suggest steps towards improvement, which can be agreed upon by consensus.

The Positive Side of Kanban

The Kanban method is working effectively in many organizations due to its simplicity and participative form. It is removing many chaotic conditions and is ensuring a clear and smooth communication order to be more agile. It helps get more work done in less time and in a much smoother fashion.

Benefits of Kanban

  • Everyone is on the same page

With Kanban visualizing every piece of work on a board, the Kanban board turns into a central informational hub. Every team member can have a quick update on the status of every project or task and get a quick glance of the status and the flow of the work in progress. The display also increases social facilitation and motivates the team members to perform better. 

  • Kanban reveals bottlenecks in your workflow

The Kanban board when fully displayed will visually show the status of the columns. Some which are more crowded will automatically display the trouble areas and will give clue how to eliminate the troubles 

This will help spotlight bottlenecks in the workflow and tackle them properly. It will also help with the solution by brainstorming amongst the team members and arrive at collective decisions.

  • Kanban brings flexibility

Since Kanban principles are more visible and easily understood,  it can be used by any team in the organization from marketing to HR.

The main reason is that Kanban respects the current state of the organization and it doesn’t require revolutionary changes. Kanban suggests to pursue incremental, evolutionary change and try to improve continuously.

  •  The team gets more responsive

Kanban is created to meet actual customer’s demand just in time, rather than pushing goods to the market. Kanban rather begins with the end in mind and rather comes backward from what and when is actually needed by the consumer or the end-user.

In these days of knowledge work and more awareness at the workplace, Kanban makes it easy to respond to the ever-changing customer’s requirements. It allows teams to change priorities, reorganize or switch focus really fast.

  • Kanban focuses on finishing work to boost collaboration and productivity

Kanban requires teams to focus on their current tasks until they are done. This is possible only by limiting (WIP)work in progress. This eliminates distractions such as context-switching and multitasking. 

  • Modern-Day Kanban

With the development of  IT Technology, Kanban has been continuously improving and has become more sophisticated with the Digital Kanban Board. More sophisticated features are added with advanced animations to make it visually rich.

 It has also become advantageous for teams working from remote space.

  • Workflow automation

With more sophisticated features added both in the Kabana Board and the devices, the online Kanban solution gives the opportunity to automate some parts of the processes and save valuable time. With custom automatons like memory and inference, any typical workflow can be made more efficient.

Kanban in a Nutshell

Kabana has come a long way and has evolved with time. The simplicity with which the Kabana system operates makes it highly user friendly in the entire team comprising labour, supervisor, or the Project Managers.

Once the philosophy is understood behind the Kabana board it becomes all the easier to apply to daily work.

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