Even if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, you’ve probably encountered Kanban’s signature cards and boards in one form or another.
The most recognizable example of Kanban in action is the whiteboard covered in sticky notes, which has become something of a visual shorthand for “brainstorming” and “collaboration” in the workplace.
But there’s a lot more to Kanban than sticky notes. Kanban is actually a powerful Lean strategy that helps organizations clarify tasks and streamline work processes. Kanban also makes it easier to identify where and how teams can improve, thus ensuring higher quality results and less waste.
What Is Kanban?
Kanban is a workflow management system that dates way back to the late 1940s, when Toyota began optimizing its production processes. This optimization would later be referred to as the Toyota Production System (TPS), and it provides the foundation for Lean.
A core element of TPS is something called “just in time” manufacturing, a process where production operates on a pull system. In a pull system, all production is based on customer demand. The goal is to match inventory levels to consumption patterns, which optimizes the flow between the manufacturer and the consumer.
By contrast, the “standard” push practice is to produce goods and then push them to the market, which can result in wasted materials, unnecessary costs, and the challenge of off-loading unsold merchandise.
The Definition of Kanban
The term Kanban comes from the Japanese word for “sign” or “sign board.” In the context of Lean production, Kanban is used to describe the visual cues or cards that authorize production or the movement of items.
As a strategy, Kanban abides by four core principles:
- Visualize work. The first step in setting up a Kanban board is to create a visual representation of existing processes. Mapping out your workflow in its current state allows you to identify issues that need to be addressed and start driving improvements.
- Limit work-in-progress (WIP). One of Kanban’s main objectives is improving efficiency. By limiting the number of active items on the board, it helps prevent multi-tasking, which can cause teams to lose focus and quality to drop.
- Focus on flow. In Kanban, flow refers to the movement of work items through the production process. It’s about understanding and optimizing the work process to move action items through the system faster.
- Continuous improvement. In keeping with the broader Lean methodology, Kanban is designed to help organizations sustain a culture of continuous improvement.
While the concept might seem simple, Kanban isn’t the best starting point for Lean beginners. Before you begin, you’ll need to make sure that you already have the following six prerequisites in place:
- Small lot production
- Defect-free delivery
- Attaching Kanban to containers
- Established 5S discipline
- Expose & solve problems
The Kanban methodology also follows Six Golden Rules.
- Downstream processes always pull from upstream processes.
- Upstream processes produce only when instructed.
- Defects must never be passed on to the next process.
- Kanban should only be attached to the actual part containers.
- Production must be leveled.
- The best Kanban is no Kanban.
Kanban Online Video Course
As part of our growing School of Lean library, our Kanban courses will guide you from the basics to being able to strategically implement Kanban methodologies within a few days.
Through this course you will learn how to make lasting changes as well as how to decide where to start making improvements.
What Is a Kanban Board?
A Kanban board is a visual tool that uses cards to represent work items and columns to represent stages in the workflow.
While Kanban systems can take many different forms, traditionally, boards are split into three main columns:
Columns can (and should) be adapted to fit different workflows, goals, and organizational structures. The goal is to provide full transparency into work in progress and a real-time picture of your current capacity. As such, the board should reflect your unique internal processes.
What Is a Kanban Card?
In Kanban, every work item receives its own card on the board. Kanban cards contain information about what needs to be done, who is responsible, when it needs to be completed, and any other relevant details.
The goal of Kanban cards is to allow workers to track the progress of work as it moves through each stage of production. The cards allow all team members to see where each deliverable is in the process, which provides transparency, accountability, and the ability to quickly identify roadblocks.
How to Learn and Practice Kanban
Done right, Kanban boards are a powerful tool for optimizing workflows and maximizing efficiency.
Here are a few tips for introducing Kanban to your workplace:
- Nail the prerequisites first. If you’re starting from scratch, focus on learning and implementing Lean fundamentals like 5S and Heijunka before you start assembling your board.
- Beware of wastes in the Kanban system like excess inventory, handling, and processing.
- Remember, the ideal Just-in-Time Production System wouldn’t use a Kanban system at all—the goal is to create a process for matching inventory to demand. Basically, this means it’s not about creating a Kanban system—it’s about getting to a point where you’ve achieved true one-piece flow.
If you’re ready to take your Lean strategy to the next level, check out the Gemba Academy Kanban course. In this eight-part series, Lean expert Ron Pereira introduces Kanban, then explains how to implement this strategy into a production environment. Watch the first installment for free to find out more.
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