The original Kanban System. Source: TOYOTA Global Website
Immediately following the end of the Second World War, Japan was at its lowest point. It was probably the most challenging time for many Japanese businesses and citizens to endure slow productivity and efficiency. However, it was also around this time that one of the vital work approaches was invented, Kanban.
Kanban (Japanese: 看板, meaning signboard or billboard) is a work approach system revolving around the concept developed by one Taiichi Ohno, an engineer and businessman at Toyota. The use of signboards was instrumental in ensuring efficiency and flexibility, among other things, in just-in-time production. This enabled Toyota to build and deliver a car in 66 seconds, boosting productivity.
The use of a board makes Kanban a highly visual system. This enabled the different teams to keep track of progress, examining the workflow process and anticipate any potential bottlenecks. Since its inception, Kanban’s use has extended beyond manufacturing to include software development. If viewed as a virtual system that manages work processes, it can be applied to any knowledge work from IT Management and Business Process and even specialised fields such as legal, human resource, and marketing.
Kanban Board details
With Kanban, the board is divided into three columns, namely a “To-Do”, “In Progress” and “Done” sections. This creates a simple workflow process that can be easily visualised and understood by everyone involved.
With these three steps, the Kanban board becomes a valuable tool in monitoring the series of processes that lead to product or service completion. When a task is completed in one column, it is then moved to the next.
In general, there are six practices, which are listed on separate cards.
01. VisualiseManaging events and organising the team will fall under this category. Team members need to visualise the workflow. They also need to identify the end-users or the customers and strive toward generating value for them. The identification of potential issues and impediments as well as discussions about the details of the tasks are done here.
02. Limit WIPThe “Limit WIP” stage will point out all tasks in progress. Team members will identify high priority functions and managers discuss what responsibilities should be replaced, or which tasks to be done first. What matters here is limiting the work within the system to only when there is the capacity to do more which essentially means setting up just enough work for the team to do comfortably.
03. Manage workflowWhen there is an impediment to the workflow, members need to review the flow as a team and resolve the issue together. There should also be a discussion about the structure of this flow with regards to the output. A reduction in work intake will fix or alleviate the presence of a bottleneck.
04. Explicit policiesKanban is also about aligning policies. These are basically ‘rules’ that everyone can follow. It creates an agreement on how the work is to be scheduled. It also serves as a reference and reminder for each team member on what was agreed on. This will keep everyone in check and help new team members who have just come on board to understand what is going on.
05. Feedback loopsHaving teams distributed over countries has many challenges. Creating feedback loops are necessary to facilitate smoother workflow and continuous improvements.
Additionally, it also helps in promoting the exchange of knowledge and potential changes. It ensures that everyone is aligned and synchronised. These improvements are done collaboratively as a team. During these feedback loops, team members are also encouraged to contribute, promoting an act of leadership at all levels.
06. Improve and evolveKanban is useful in defining and improving services. These improvements are made collaboratively as a team. Collaborative efforts where feedback is received and acted on also leads to the evolution of business processes, which can refine said process, from end to end.
Kanban is a method that defines, manages and improves services that deliver knowledge work. It reduces multitasking and encourages the completion of work in hand before taking up anything new. In a nutshell, it reduces delays, time to market and delivers work early and often.
Perhaps most importantly, it helps an organisation become lean and agile. With Kanban, everyone is on the same page.