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The Kanban System

Kanban is a scheduling system used in lean production methods. It is also known in many production circles as, Just In Time manufacturing, or JIT. It was heavily used by Toyota to improve production efficiency by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer. It was Taiichi Ohno ,who labelled the methodology – Kanban. Kanban is sometimes refereed to as, the Toyota nameplate system in the car industry.

Kanban’s literal translation means, signboard, or billboard, and takes its name from the cards that track production within a factory. However, it’s origin dates back to 1940’s England, in the factories that fabricated the Spitfire aeroplane during the second world war. There it was known as, ‘The two-bin system’. It originates from the simplest visual stock replenishment signalling system, an empty box.

A goal of the kanban system is, to limit the build-up of excess inventory at any point in production, and to establish an upper limit to work in process inventory to avoid over capacity. Limits to the number of items waiting at supply points are established, then reduced as inefficiencies are identified and removed. Whenever a limit is exceeded, it suggests inefficiency that should be addressed.

The Kanban methodology is used widely in shop replenishment. If you think about supermarket shelf-stocking techniques, and the supply and demand process. Supermarket customers generally buy what they need at the required time, no more, no less, because future supply is assured. Thus, supermarkets will only buy in the goods, and stock its shelves with what it expects to sell in a given time. Taiichi Ohno observed this pull and push process and applied it to their factory processes. This action of using small batches makes production efficient in terms of, cost, reduced waste, and the ability to solve problems while they are still relatively small before they scale to much larger issues. Problem areas are highlighted by measuring lead time and cycle time of the full process and process steps.

Kanban and validated learning.

Projects in the example below are technology products but, the process is the same in any given business with different types of products.

Projects are not considered complete until they are led to validated learning. Thus, projects can be catalogued as being in one of four stages of development. For example; in the product backlog, actively being built, done, or in the process of been authorised. Authorised can be defined as, ‘knowing whether the task was a good idea to have been done in the first place.’

The Kanban rule permits, only so many tasks in each of the four stages. As projects flow from one stage to the other, the, ‘Project Boxes’ fill up. Once a box becomes full, it cannot accept more projects. Only when a project has been validated can it be removed from the Kanban board. If authorisation fails and it turns out the project is a bad idea, the relevant feature is removed from the product.

This technique is often used in engineering and fabrication businesses today. For example, when I worked for a metal fabrication firm, making fancy curtain finials and tie backs, certain tasks could not be done until quality control had been carried out on processes throughout the construction of the product e.g. excess weld wasn’t ground away from finials if the steel ball on the end wasn’t welded on centrally. Then, the polishing of the grinding couldn’t be started until the excess weld was removed.

The charts below show a visual representation of Kanban.


Kanban Diagram Of Work As It Progresses From Stage To Stage

BacklogIn ProgressBuiltAuthorised

Work on A begins. D and E are in development. F awaits authorisation.

BacklogIn ProgressBuiltAuthorised

F is authorised. D and E await authorisation. G, H, I are new tasks to be undertaken. B and C are being built. A completes development.

BacklogIn ProgressBuiltAuthorised
H ->B ->E
I ->C ->A

B and C have been built, but under Kanban – cannot be moved to the next box for validation until A, D, E have been validated. Work cannot begin on H and I until space opens up in the boxes ahead.

Learn more from the book, ‘Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production.’ by Taiichi Ohno – via the non affiliated link here

Read my, ‘Power Of A Question’ – The Five Whys here

A fully stocked supermarket shelf of alcohol. Supermarkets use a form of Kanban System. A-Game coach
Business Success - The Kanban System is often used in supermarkets to stock shelves
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