Kanban origins

Following the end of the second World War, Japan was at its lowest point.

It was a most challenging time for many Japanese businesses and citizens to endure slow productivity and efficiency in the struggle to recover from the war.

But it was also a time of great discovery and experimentation. One such vital experimentation and inventions formed in this era was 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.

Black & White photograph of the early days process of Kanban developed first at Toyota

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.

When viewed as a virtual system to manage work processes, it can be applied to any knowledge work from IT Management and Business Process including 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 moved to the next.

Kanban practice

In general, there are six practices, which are listed on separate cards.

01. Visualise

Managing 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 WIP

The “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 workflow

Stock image of the Kanban process of Idea, To do, Doing & Done

When 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 policies

Kanban 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 loops

Having 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 evolve

Kanban 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.