Kanban is a Japanese term for a visual process workflow tool that encourages people and organizations to develop a shared understanding of their process. It's also a lean processes tool that teams can use to identify opportunities for improving processes.
Kanban's ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes to produce a product or provide a service, while maintaining or improving quality.
"Kanban comes from Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System," explains Julia Wester, principal consultant and co-founder of Seattle-based lean processes consulting firm Lagom Solutions. "[It] started by visualizing demand and managing inventory of physical items."
Since then it has become widely used in manufacturing, but in recent years, Wester says, it has been used in knowledge businesses, beginning with software development.
"It's quite a different challenge to visualize the demand and availability for the invisible inventory we have in knowledge work," Wester says.
Kanban's Keys: The Benefits of Using This Strategy to Build Lean Processes
The central feature of kanban is a wall or board divided into columns showing the steps of work flowing through a process. A simple workflow, for instance, might include design, build and test. Movable cards in each column represent work items traveling through the process.
This visual representation of work can make it easier to see bottlenecks and slowdowns, identify resource constraints and develop policies and practices that can help reduce obstacles and speed completion of products and projects.
—Jon Terry, chief evangelist of lean-agile strategy, Planview
Kanban is especially effective at helping organizations reduce the time a team requires to complete and deliver a work order, which is a central goal of lean processes, according to Jon Terry. Terry is the chief evangelist of lean-agile strategy at Planview, an Austin, Texas-based maker of work and resource management software.
“We pretty much routinely hear from customers that they see 20-percent improvements in delivery speed," Terry says. “You can get that within a month or two." Kanban can help do this by helping to identify bottlenecks, resource constraints and waiting queues that can slow down cycle time.
Quality improvement is another goal of lean processes. Kanban helps to achieve this by enabling teams to lessen rework, trim waste and reduce the number of items of work in progress at any given time. Kanban can also help teams provide more accurate delivery dates, which helps teams collaborate with each other.
The Costs of Going Kanban
Kanban doesn't need to be a costly proposition.
“Actual costs for implementing a kanban system can be as little as the cost of sticky notes and a Sharpie," says Wester. “If you purchase digital tools, the price can vary wildly."
Planview charges $19 per person per month for a basic subscription to its LeanKit project management software for implementing kanban. Terry says that while simple paper-based systems are adequate for many organizations, enterprises with geographically distributed teams often find digital tools are preferable to physical kanban walls. Other project management software products that can be used to do kanban-style process improvement include Jira and Trello.
Whether done electronically or with ink and paper, kanban has proven flexible and suitable for organizations of any size that are interested in lean processes, Terry says.
“It's something you can use to run a five-person team and it's something you can use to run multiple five-person teams for a thousand-person company," he says. “It scales really effectively and it's super simple for people to start."
Kanban's Limits and Risks
But simply visualizing a work process won't necessarily guarantee improvement, Terry cautions. Businesses that implement kanban need to use it to analyze and change processes so work flows faster and more smoothly.
“Step one is visualizing the process and starting to put work through it," Terry says. “But your goal should be to keep changing that process. It's meant to be a tool for continuous improvement. People who don't take advantage of that can stall."
There are potential pitfalls when implementing kanban, proponents warn.
“One is that kanban is fundamentally a transparency mechanism," Terry says. “It shows you what your process is, what your workload is and where that's going wrong. Sometimes that's uncomfortable for organizations. I've seen people start putting up kanban boards that reveal some problems they would rather not talk about."
Kanban can also be ineffective if the organization is not ready to use the information it produces to encourage improvement and implementation of lean processes, Wester says.
“If there is not a culture that supports recognizing and fixing problems—[if it's] a punitive culture of some sort—then the effort will not be successful," Wester says. “People will hide the real data and you will be pretending. It's better to focus on moving away from that punitive culture."
After taking a half century to gradually move from Japanese auto plants to companies around the world working in a variety of knowledge fields, kanban is poised to become a pervasive feature of lean processes management.
“In the technology world, you would be extraordinarily hard pressed to find a company in the Fortune 1000 where there are not a significant number of people in IT who are doing kanban," Terry says. “It's becoming pretty darn prevalent and that's only going to grow over time. As lean-agile methods become dominant, kanban is a really good way to put those ideas into practice."
Read more articles on brainstorming.