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kanban boardIn the 1940s, Toyota began matching inventory with demand in order to allow for a “just-in-time” provisioning and production process. They did this by implementing a visual system for monitoring the flow of parts from the supplier, to storage facilities, to the assembly line. This system reduced costs, improved quality, and sped up the rate of production.

They called this process “Kanban,”’ a Japanese term which literally translates to “signboard” or “visual signal.” This approach was found to be effective, and so “Kanban Cards” began to spread to manufacturing companies across the globe to help control the production and purchasing of parts. Today, the core principles of Kanban - as defined by David J. Anderson, Jim Benson, and others - are effectively leveraged by workers in a variety of industries, not just manufacturing.


The Four Principles of Kanban


  1. Visualize Workflow

    As the name’s origin suggests, one of the key components to Kanban is visualization. When using Kanban to manage work, for example in a software development or construction team, it’s important to visualize the work tasks that need to be done, either on post it notes or in software. This allow all parties to observe the flow of work, which in turn allows opportunities for improvement - such as blockers, bottlenecks, and queues - to become clear. Visualization is not a one-time practice at the start of Kanban, but continues after its implementation, serving as a means of communication about the state of projects, processes, and the inventory of work that remains to be done.

  2. Limit Work in Progress

    The ultimate goal of Kanban is to move each piece of work efficiently from beginning to end without waste or lag. Work moves from one stage to the next only when demand - from an external customer or the next stage - makes space for it. For this to be accomplished, the amount of work in the pipeline must be limited to what can reasonably be managed at any given time. Because work is never forced forward against the pull of demand, we avoid piling too much work on a person, which causes stress and impedes flow.

  3. Focus on Flow

    If the first two principles have been put in place, work will flow freely. Therefore, attention should be directed to any interruptions in flow. Such inefficiencies represent opportunities for further visualization and for improvement.

  4. Continuous Improvement

    Since conditions, resources, and customer demands develop over time, it’s clear that this approach demands constant monitoring and analysis to assess flow and look for opportunities for improvement.


Benefits of Kanban

If workflow is visualized and work in progress is limited, any interruption in flow can be identified, targeted, and resolved before a backlog forms or grows too large. This is important in any industry, as backlogs tie up investment, create prioritization conflicts, and increase distance to customer value.

Additionally, team effectiveness can be measured by tracking flow, production pace, and quality, allowing any teams that need it to be identified for further coaching. While it is simple, the Kanban approach enables teams to operate more efficiently, while reducing friction and maintaining a flow of value to customers.


How Continuous Improvement Software Works with Kanban


  • Prevent the Loss of Ideas:

    When practicing Kanban, you may encounter several opportunities for improvement. If you put off recording those insights until you are near some physical Kanban board or until your team’s next meeting, you might forget your idea. Accessing continuous improvement software on a mobile device allows you to enter those ideas as they occur to you, preventing this loss of information.

  • Real Time:

    Continuous improvement software helps to improve communication between frontline employees and their leaders. When you notice an interruption in the flow of a process, you can immediately enter that opportunity for improvement into the software. But unlike with a suggestion box (a physical box or online tool), your idea doesn’t sit there until someone happens to notice it. Instead, your team is alerted and your team leader can take the appropriate action.

  • Calculate ROI:

    Continuous improvement software captures the impact of every idea implemented as a result of your Kanban initiative (as well as all other continuous improvement disciplines), helping you to monitor and report on the ROI of continuous improvement.

  • Increased Visibility:

    With detailed reports showing individuals’ engagement in various continuous improvement work, continuous improvement software makes it easy to see who is participating in the Kanban initiative. The software also adds a sense of accountability to the improvement process, helping to ensure that changes are actually made, and that leaders respond quickly to engagement. People will stop speaking up if they think action and support won’t follow.

  • Increase Employee Engagement:

    When you’re using Kanban, you’re engaging employees, making them think about their workflow and opportunities for improvement, not only for their individual parts of the project, but for the process as a whole. That engagement shouldn’t stop once you go back to your office. Building a virtual team in a continuous improvement software platform around each ideas promotes cross functional collaboration in formulating and implementing a plan for improvement and promotes greater buy-in.