Kanban, may the force be with you

Let’s take a closer look at one of the techniques of Lean Visual Management: the Kanban.

Kanban is one of the key elements of Just-In-time (JIT) in the Toyota Production System (TPS). Designed by Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s (please read Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management), Kanban aims to achieve the ideal of one-piece flow, pulled and conditioned (takt) by customer demand.

Out of the automotive industry, Kanban has gradually turned into a Visual Management board (service, IT …). However, it’s wrong to believe that the physical Kanban cards have disappeared. They are still present in many factories, including those of Toyota and its suppliers whose manufacturing processes are connected to those of Toyota (as you can see in the principles of the flow of connected processes described by Jeffrey Liker for example).

What is Kanban?

In Japanese, Kanban means signal. This signal is generally materialized via a card (or cardboard card) representing the flow of value. The card represents the product or service that the customer has requested (or a sub-element of this product or service). There are 2 types of Kanban cards:

1) production instruction ;

2) delivery instruction.

But make no mistake about it, as the authors of The Lean Strategy (M. Ballé, D. Jones, J. Chaize, O. Fiume) indicate on Lean.org :

“The misunderstanding is that Kanban is about the cards – Kanban is about measuring the response time on every individual demand, a very different concept. In essence, the flow of Kanban cards is a key circulatory system in a learning organization”.

Concretely, for a visual management, the Kanban represents both the small card (self-adhesive or not) and the board on which it is located.

To distinguish them, we will speak of “Kanban cards” and “Kanban board”.

Kanban, to make things visible

What Taiichi Ohno said about Kanban : “The aim of kanban is to make problems arise and link them to kaizen activity”. I tell people, “Let idle people play rather than do unnecessary work.” And this is the purpose of a Kanban-type visual board: to make problems dynamically visible and solve them one after the other.

The authors of the book The Lean Sensei also wrote: “Both andon and kanban were test mechanisms: systems to highlight delivery problems in real time, as and when they happened, so that they could be fixed (with “kaizen,” small, continuous step by step improvements) and learning could be capitalized by ongoing upgrading of standards.”

Or Jeffrey Liker and David Meier in The Toyota Way Fieldbook, a practical guide for implementing Toyota’s 4Ps: “Sustaining continuous flow also serves to surface any problem that would inhibit that flow. In essence, the creation of flow forces the correction of problems, resulting on reduce waste.”

Personally, I really like a sentence by Jean-Claude Bihr, CEO of Alliance-MIM: “Without Kanban, everyone lies.” Or that from Michael Ballé:“Kanban is magic because it’s relentless – you can’t argue with the kanban.”

It’s also a great communication tool facilitating exchanges between the various members of the team, but also with stakeholders (for example, the business product owner in IT). By gradually integrating the business (to continue on this example) into the process and by connecting its value flow with the one of the development team, the Kanban board will reveal the difficulties in maintaining a continuous flow driven by customer demand and with the good level of quality at each stage of the connected processes.

Although it’s not its purpose, the Kanban board and the daily meeting advantageously replace meetings and project monitoring committees. As the stakeholders attend the daily meetings by the Kanban board, they have access to all the information.

Kanban, to understand

Using a Visual Management is good, but it must be used to understand:

  • customer expectations (deadline, quality, etc.);
  • the product or service performed: does the team produce what is necessary to meet the client’s expectations?
  • the process to build the product or service: is it effective (before being efficient)? Is it still producing waste (waiting, defect, transport, over-processing, motion, inventory and overproduction)?
  • the team: do the persons have all the necessary skills to succeed every time (including when some key members are not present)? Who are the people available today? What are the team impediments that the team leader and its manager need to deal with quickly to help the team succeed?

During one of her conferences, Cécile Roche explained what Visual Management means: “Working as a team to decide what key elements must be put on the walls that will allow us to make the right decision at the right time. Each of these needs to be discussed and agreed upon.”

Often, teams call Kanban their “To do / In progress / Done” visual management. It’s a misnomer. Of course, there are all the little cards (self-adhesive or not), but what is important in a Kanban is the value flow materialization : the process of creating the product or service. However, the column named “In Progress” is not a process. If the team processes support tickets, the Kanban board should materialize the process for handling tickets. If the team develops a software, the Kanban board reproduces the process of coding the application. If the team is in charge of recruiting new employees, then the Kanban board will represent the recruitment process.

As all Lean principles, Kanban is a part of a learning system (understand the process, see the flow that moves or not, see non-quality and act to 1) protect the customer and 2) solve the problem to permanently delete its occurrences. As Isao Yoshino said: “Process to attain your goals is as important as its result. If you have good results without a good process, you might be lucky… but you are not learning.”

By making the process and the problems it generates visible, the team can act on the process itself (by solving problems with PDCAs) in order to improve the quality of the parts and speed up their production.

Kanban, to learn

Michael Ballé and Godefroy Beauvallet wrote in Le Management Lean: “The value of the Kanban is to be a vector of progress, because it helps to draw flows and gives architecture to improvement efforts. It’s not a production system, it’s a system of continuous improvement.”

Lean Visual Management, which includes the Kanban board, is a dynamic problem revelator. It’s by practicing Kanban sustainably that the doors of continuous improvement open, in a way that I will describe as “deep”, because the changes will have a lasting structural impact on the company. These improvements will relate to meeting delivery commitments, reducing lead-time and, consequently, increasing the value the process delivers.

Making the flow visible (value creation process) makes it possible to highlight that everything doesn’t run in a linear and fluid way. Change from a pushed flow to a pulled flow allows to improve the way teams operate. They change from the mode “I do what I have to do” to “I do what I have to do according to what the next person (or the next team) needs.”
Unlike what one might think, the goal of Kanban is not to adapt the speed of the flow (lead-time of the piece that runs through the flow of value creation) to the context of the team, as specified here very well by Sandrine Olivencia :“The aim of Kanban isn’t to reduce WIP to match a team’s capacity and to reduce cycle time as agile teams would.”

On the contrary, Kanban reveals all the problems (often one after the other) that prevent the team from delivering just what is needed, on time according to the customer’s request, no more, no less. Therefore, it’s not up to the team or the company to decide the pace of production, it’s up to customers through the pace (the famous takt) of orders. It’s by daily questioning itself that the team improves, as the authors of The Lean Strategy indicate: “The key to quality and learning, the Kanban, is never easy to put in place. The Kanban will affect capabilities as current tasks are completed faster and backlogs absorbed as well.”

The same authors explained their thinking on Lean.org: “In using Kanban we’re not implementing a solution, we are looking for the next step to improve so that we will discover new ways of doing things through teamwork between all stakeholders.”

One day, during an initiation training to Kanban in IT, upon leaving the classroom a participant told me that Kanban is not well suited to agility because it’s too rigorous, too burdensome… What she overlooked is that it takes a lot of discipline to define and apply the rules the team should stick to in order to become truly agile. In addition, Kanban can be applied very well in agile environments (IT or even elsewhere) and often allows teams already practicing agility (Scrum or other) to go much further.

Others wanted to put all the pieces that they make every day into their Kanban board; it’s impossible if these parts don’t have the same manufacturing steps. Choosing your Kanban is choosing the process against which the team wants to improve; it’s a strategic choice to be determined based on customer feedback, because the ultimate goal of Kanban, like TPS, is to fully satisfy its customers.

Michael Ballé explained his thinking here: “The spirit of kaizen is to bring value closer to the final customer. Without Kanban, you can be practicing what you believe is kaizen, but you actually have no compass, no direction-setting, practical, visual, here-and-now tool to see whether the new idea is a step in the right direction or just a random change.”

Pierre Jannez wrote in his article Scrum And The Toyota Production System, How To Build High Performance Teams: “The TPS must be considered as a scaffolding whose aim is to make problems visible when they appear. We must first build the system and then make it work: 1) Build a good visual management 2) Pull the flow 3) Identify the good problems 4) Solve the problems 5) Learn the right lessons.”

It’s by accepting to see all the problems – with the support of management – and by solving them one after the other that the team will manage, gradually and in small steps, to meet her customers’ expectations (functionality, quality and speed) and to completely satisfy them.

Kanban, respect for people

To successfully implement Kanban, managers must adopt the right attitude by accepting that yes, there are problems and by providing their teams with all the support they need to solve those problems themselves. That’s what Sandrine explained: […] Condition for kanban to work is to put in place a management “chain of help”. This means that managers must continuously support teams in solving tricky problems revealed by the kanban system. This is first a mark of respect that contributes to creating mutual trust between managers and employees.

and she added: This requires a change of attitude from managers who must support and challenge their teams instead of commanding and controlling them.”

In an article on Lean.org, Michael Ballé described the additional Lean skills that a team leader must acquire to practice Kanban with his team : “A kanban system requires additional “lean” skills from a team leader:

  • Know quality characteristics and job sequence;  
  • Train to standards;
  • Upkeep visual management, spot abnormalities;
  • Grasp kaizen points;
  • Pay attention to preceding and following processes.

Cécile Roche recently shared her feedback after a Gemba walk with sensei Isao Yoshino (read her article here) who explained the importance of bad news (problems): “Bad news first is not for teams, but for managers. It’s a sign of respect for people. Managers who say “bad news first” loud and clear send an extremely positive message to their team. First they tell them “it is normal to have problems” and then “I am here to help you”.”


Michael Ballé thus concluded his article: “There’s only one conclusion: if you’re not using Kanban, you’re probably doing something great and improving things here and there, but you can’t call it “lean.” Kanban is a harsh discipline, but it’s the first step into the bigger world of true continuous improvement.

His conclusion is shared by Sandrine Olivencia: “But kanban is just the start: it shows us the path to improvement, so each person can walk it on their own using kaizen every day. It’s the secret to creating a true lean organization. The same way there is no lean without kanban, there can be no kanban without kaizen.

The kind of strength that transcends teams, processes and the whole organization will be with you only if you practice Kanban lastly and with discipline.

Finally, I will echo the words of Sandrine Olivencia: Kanban is actually a tool for developing and strengthening teamwork across the organization by solving problems together (kaizen).”

Original post written by Jean-Philippe Douet. Translation by Frédéric Buono

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